So I have to leave everything at home which can be mistaken for weapons if I want to fly. The official list includes corkscrews, cricket bats, kubatons, numchucks, pool cues, portable power drills (oh yes, I take them everywhere), religious knives (lucky I'm not a Sikh), toy transformers, robots or toy weapons. Knitting needles are a grey area. I suppose the needle with knitting on it can go, but not the one without. I'm unsure whether to stop in the middle of a row, or just to co-operate with increasing paranoid security guards at the airports. Oh yes, and I mustn't recite the mantra: a weapon is a device to change the enemy's mind. Not even under my breath.
Yeah, airport security is a serious matter and I certainly don't want bits of me to rain down on some unsuspecting bit of a foreign country. But it's not as cut and dried as it appears. The problem is that the population of non-terrorists is (I'm being optimistic here) so much larger than the population of terrorists that using face recognition can lead to long, frustrating and, possibly unnecessary, delays. Just say that the face recognition software is 99.9% accurate. And, for the sake of argument, assume that one in ten million flyers is a terrorist. That means that the software will generate 1000 false alarms for every 1 real alarm.
OK, let's move to plan B: suspicious looking things in people's luggage. There was once a chap called Neil Godfrey, who wanted to fly from Philadelphia to Phoenix to see his parents and go to Disneyland. Going to Disneyland is not what I'd like to do, still. He was searched randomly: no particular reason, just picked out of the crowd to show impartiality in looking at passengers. The security guards freaked. He'd taken a book to read on the journey, called "Hayduke Lives"" by Edward Abbey (not a book I've ever heard of, by the way). On the cover is an illustration of a man's hand, holding several sticks of dynamite. Worse, the plot concerns a radical environmentalist who blows up tractors and sabotages projects which he believes are destroying the beautiful American landscape.
So Neil Godfrey wasn't allowed to fly. He went back to his Philadelphia flat and phoned his mother.
Attempt #2 was a few days later. His mother had sorted out an alternative flight. He didn't take that book again. Unfortunately, he couldn't manage a flight without reading, and when he was recognised, scrutinised, searched and the book confiscated, he was banned from flying with that particular airline. The book, by the way, was "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban".
You want another example? Perhaps this one is more understandable. It's about Professor Steven Mann, a self described cyborg. He wanted to get out of St Johns, Newfoundland, but the security guards didn't care much for his computerised glasses, headgear and electronic bodysuit (neither would I, frankly ...). So he had such an extensive search he missed his flight and couldn't get another for two days. Still, he did manage to fly away.
Of course, some people can't go through the electronic scanners. This happened to General Joe Foss, a former Governor of South Dakota, who's got a heart monitor. He was on his way to give a speech to a US West Point Miliary Academy class and when he was patted down, the security guards had kittens. He had a star shaped thing in his pocket - obviously a lethal weapon. The security guards kept handing it round, trying to work out what it was - not surprising, you don't see a Congressional Medal of Honor every day. Then they found a key chain made from a dummy bullet, drilled through with a hole and a small knife/file with a Medal of Honor insignia. Obviously, this man was dangerous! He had a 45 minute search, his boots were removed, his tie and belt were removed three times. "I wasn't upset for me" General Foss said later "I was upset for the Medal of Honor ... it represents all of the guys who lost their lives - the guys who never came back. Everyone who put their lives on the line for their country. You're supposed to know what the Medal of Honor is".
Actually, he was lucky. He got his flight, though I don't know what the other passengers, who had to wait for all this time, said.
So where does a reasonable standard of protection leave off and lunacy begin? One good thing about all this is that there has been a spotlight put on security screeners. In 2001, the normal pay rate for people monitoring metal detectors was $5.60 an hour. Of course, they were subject to background character checks: except that Dallas Airport, which had 15,000 employees with access to secure areas, had only fingerprinted and checked the criminal history of 75% and there are - as a weary screener told me - over 200 forms of state government issued identity cards. By April 2002, the rate had gone up to $12 an hour, still not what I'd like to work for, but a definite improvement, and 12,000 more screeners had been hired. Also the screening period had doubled from 10 days in 2001 to 21 days to allow more thorough checks.
I don't know the answer. I need to get to and from places quickly and safely. I don't particularly like being stuck in airports and I resent the implication that should I read something unorthodox, the extrapolation should be made about my character (what about the obese fiftyish wannabe heroes who read paperbacks about World War II? Isn't that highly suspicious reading matter?) Of course, I've taken the more extreme examples, which get discussed on the media. But just because something hits the papers, doesn't make it right - or wrong or (a cynical voice in my head says) true. Like I said, I don't know the answer to this problem. And I don't think anyone else does, either.
posted by Dovya R @
6:30 PM : discuss