All I have to do is say the words "airport security line" and almost everyone shakes their head in shared frustration. How is it America, to protect itself against extremist Muslim terrorists, subjects its own citizens to a humiliating degree of security? And Israel, a nation surrounded by Muslim countries that routinely vow to wipe it off the face of the Earth, doesn't?
The national airline of Israel has never had a hijacking. How do they maintain security, in what is, essentially, a 24x7 live war zone? They’re trained to pick up cues, while questioning every passenger efficiently, ushering people through security lines based on when flights leave, not the cattle call, one-size-fits-all approach we have here.
When you enter an American airport, you start hearing the taped announcements, "Homeland security places the threat level at orange." What does that mean? Does anyone remember what level orange means? It sounds like an early 80's band. Is orange good? Is that level bad? Have they poisoned our vitamin C? After awhile, all you really register is the word: “Threat.” Then there are the classic announcements, also played in a loop. “Keep your bags with you at all times.” “Report anything strange right away to the authorities.” When you boil these phrases down, the message is distilled simply to: there is something threatening here; don't trust others; people who look different are bad.
If those don't get to you, then all the books written by conservative commentators will drive the point home, too. Maintaining the fear generated by the 911 attacks has become a lucrative business, so it makes sense that people buy books claiming to fight "them." After all, you're in the airport, with that constant loop of fear-based messages filling your head. So when you see a book that claims to lay out the entire agenda of "them", asking why we aren't doing enough to fight "them", why wouldn't people’s reptilian brains make a fear-based purchase?
America, as a country, probably still suffers post traumatic stress disorder from 911. Telling people to be scared of stray luggage, and using a phrase like “threat level” over and over before we board planes, isn't exactly helping us move on.
The airport has become equal parts civics lesson, re-education camp, and just a general pain in the ass. It's a sort of no-man's land, where most of the Bill of Rights doesn’t apply. You actually leave America when entering an airport, and only return to it when you exit at your destination.
When I get to the part with the plastic bins, I get behind a guy who hasn't been to an airport for more than ten years because he is mystified by it all.
"Take off what?" he asks a TSA agent pointing to his shoes. Finally, he pushes his five individual plastic bins into the x-ray machine. Five! A solo traveler with their laptop in a plastic bin should take up no more than 3. As a pro traveler I only use 2. I have slip-off shoes, a quick release belt, and my coat is off before I even get to the bins.
The guy keeps setting off the metal detector. They keep asking him "Are you sure you don't have any metal in your pockets?" He keeps shaking his head and everyone in line behind him shakes theirs, too. After the third time, they use that Jedi wand thing, and it reacts around his knee. "I have a titanium implant. Do I take that out?" He really asks this! After the backup, I’m kind of tempted to watch him try!
Taking your shoes off and removing your belt is exactly what anyone under arrest has to do during jail intake. The only difference between airline travelers and just-arrested suspects is – they read suspects their rights. I think the TSA should have someone standing there, giving you the anti-Miranda speech.
"You don't have the right to be silent. Any and all questions must be answered and must be answered free of sarcasm, frustration or sense of humor. You give up your right to have an attorney present during questioning. You give up the right to the first Amendment, which states you have a right to free speech. You don't have a right to the fourth amendment which states that the police or other government authority can only search your private property with reasonable cause that has to be demonstrated to a judge who will issue a warrant. Should you choose to exercise any of these rights spelled out in the constitution you could be delayed, subject to more intrusive security measures, and, in some cases, arrested and charged with a federal offense that carries jail time of four years and a fine up to $100,000."
I push my stuff into the machine, and in stocking feet walk over to the latest piece of equipment our tax dollars have purchased. It's a futuristic-looking, glass and plastic cylinder you step into, and in a demonstration of exactly how much of our rights we surrender, we comply when told to put out hands above our heads. There is no sound as some long bar between the walls of the cylinder rotates around and an image of you is uploaded to a computer. It sees through your body. Basically, it’s a digital strip search. It sees through your clothes. It can see a pacemaker in a chest, a tampon inside a woman, and, in theory, any hidden explosive materials inside the human body.
A properly-trained dog can sniff out the same thing, for a lot less money. In fact, a recent article suggests that dogs can smell cancer. That’s great information, because full body scans, medical exams that seem designed to find lumps (masquerading as pat-downs for bombs), and dogs that can smell cancer, might be as close as Americans will get to universal government health care.
When I step out of the machine, I’m told to wait. To make sure I know exactly where to stand, they’ve painted the shape of two yellow feet on a rubber mat. Believe me, it's not a Welcome mat. I stand there a moment as other people are allowed to move past me. The TSA agent stares at me. It's not a "I know you from somewhere" kind of stare; it’s a cop stare. Something in her eyes is predatory. It’s unsettling. I ask "What's going on?"
Nothing. No answer at all. Just her unwavering eyes. I ask again.
"Is there some sort of problem?"
Her walkie-talkie crackles at her side. I can't hear what is said into her ear or even what she says into the microphone clipped to her shirt. When she ends her transmission, she simply says in a flat monotone, "A supervisor will out in just a moment for an enhanced pat-down."
I drop my shoulders, close my eyes, and exclaim a little too loudly, "Great!"
I notice a few other TSA "blue shirts" looking at me now, from a back wall. They seem to have no other job than to do just that. All I can think is, “This day’s been hard enough, and I’m so close to making it to my gate. Why me? Why did I get picked for additional security?”
"Would it speed things along if I just took off all my clothes right here?" I say this half-jokingly. TSA doesn't respond well to jokes, I find.
"If you do that we will call the police." She says this in the same flat, bureaucratic accent that probably hasn't changed since the first time someone dutifully uttered the chilling phrase, “I’m just following orders.”
To me, this is funny. I laugh. She doesn't say a word, or blink, just cocks her head a little, in that time-honored silent way of asking, "What’s so funny?"
"If I get naked, right here in front of all these people, it's illegal; and I could be arrested for exposing myself in public. But, if I refuse to go through this imaging machine that takes a nude picture of me, I could be escorted off airport property. That's irony!"
"Threatening language to a TSA agent is a crime," she says.
It’s more than menacing now. I’ve already surrendered my fourth amendment right, and now I’m not-so-subtly being told, there are limits to my first amendment right here, too.
If all of this is to protect us from terrorists attacks, and the terrorists hate us for our freedoms, then good news: our freedoms are disappearing, so they should be cool with us soon. In fact, between America sliding faster and faster toward some Fascist state, and the Arabic world slowly moving toward more freedoms with recent protests, we should all meet somewhere in the unsatisfying middle, really soon.
As I shake my head I notice that over her shoulder I can see a series of dark plastic, half-globes in the ceiling. Just like the security cameras all over the casinos in Vegas. That's exactly what they are. I realize, somewhere, in some other room in the airport, someone is looking at a bank of monitors and I’m the current star. Did I trigger something in a facial recognition software program? I know from reading that these programs are designed to pick up "micro-expressions." These are common expressions on the face of any human under great stress. It doesn't seem like my expressions are very micro at all. I'm pissed. Besides, describing someone as being “under stress” could describe a suicide bomber, trying to fool security; but looking around, I realize it could also describe most of the faces around me in the security line.
It’s weird to see those half-globes. It’s weird to know that, in a basement somewhere, a supervisor is telling the agent in front of me to hold me. It's 2011, and we finally have the technology to live like it's 1984.
A man comes up to me, another blue-shirted TSA agent, and asks me to follow him. I walk to where there are several small rooms set up against the back wall. He asks me to step inside. I enter the room. The two plastic bins of my stuff are already sitting on a shelf. A second Agent now stands in the doorway, watching me with that same unsettling look. The first guy starts to put on blue plastic gloves. He doesn't look me in the eye, just says to me, "I need to tell you that I am going to be touching your crotch and putting my hands on you. Is that OK?"
"Do I really have a choice?"
Neither of them answer. Instead the one with the gloves simply says, "Raise your arms please." Thoroughly and efficiently, he does, indeed, pat me down from head to toe, even squeezing my pockets, gripping my ankles where my socks are, and going around my beltless waist. Then, he gets down on his knees and does to me what priests and creepy uncles have been thrown in jail for. This is an enhanced pat-down in the same way interrogations in Iraq were enhanced. He puts his palm flat against my penis and slides left than right, up and down, rubbing the front of my pockets and almost squeezing my inner thigh, looking for something their billion dollar-machine missed, I guess. I instinctively flinch. "Jesus! Shouldn't you be asking me to turn my head and cough?"
When I am uncomfortable, I tend to joke.
Still on his knees he says, "You should know the TSA takes sexual harassment very seriously."
"You're the one feeling me up, Dude!" Maybe I say this with a little too much anger. I don't know. He lets out a sigh, completes the government-sponsored groping, and stands next to his partner in the door, who finally speaks. "You don't have to like us but we're doing our job and you need to respect us."
"No, I don't." It comes out of my mouth before I can check myself. It just pours out in one sentence as I put my belt back on. "The government just detained me, felt me up under the threat of not being allowed to travel to my destination, and subjected me to humiliation. I wasn't shown respect so no, I don't respect you or your job."
I'm angry now. I feel my body flood with adrenaline. I am shaking a little. He clenches his jaw measuring his words. Before he speaks again I reach for my shoes when a sensation overtakes me.
I suddenly realize, this is how it happens. For the first time in my life, I actually fear my government. I'm in a windowless room with no cameras and two government agents. They have all the power, and I don't even have my most basic civil rights.
His jaw muscles flex several times in rapid succession. I do that, too, when I’m trying to decide to say out loud what I know I shouldn't say. This makes me more nervous. He just keeps looking at me. “This isn't going to end well”, I think. In a split second, his clenched jaw changes to an easy smile, as a look of recognition spreads across his face. "You were at the Punch Line a few weeks ago! You were funny, man!"
Holy shit! I'm not famous or anything. I get recognized every once in a while around town, and it's cool. I realize this is how famous people go crazy. They are caught doing something illegal and then get off the hook, free to go on snorting a line, and end up like Charlie Sheen.
When they leave, and I’m allowed to go on my merry way, I realize the President’s plane, Air Force One, is still on the ground here. That explains all the extra attitude, I guess. I get on the plane, and before it takes off, I get the special speech from the flight attendant, because as luck would have it, I'm in the exit row. They ask you if you understand English, and then essentially deputize you as emergency-door-operator in the event of an emergency.
You're telling me that after going through a million dollar x-ray peeping Tom machine, a regular x-ray of my bags, security dogs, cameras, and all the built-in safeguards on a modern jet - the entire billion dollar safety and security apparatus that’s in place - if there’s a disaster, comes down to me?
Awesome! I want a blue shirt, name tag and the ability to feel up my fellow American's!
I get to the gig and tell this story. After the show the tailor in town comes up to me. "Hey, do you want me to make you some special pants so when they do that to you again something comes out?"
I already have that. It's called every pair of pants I've ever owned.