There’s a scene in the movie “Airplane” where two heavily armed men in berets and one sweet old lady are walking through a metal detector. The buzzer goes off, and security grabs the elderly woman and throws her up against the wall as the two would-be terrorists proceed unimpeded.
Last week, while preparing to fly home from Baltimore, I thought of that scene while I was sitting in an area with three other men for a little “extra screening,” and got a chuckle. This made the security guy think I might be up to something, but I managed to convince him otherwise just before he reached for the rubber glove and Vaseline. Whew.
The “random checks” I was chosen for were easy enough. Before going into the more “thorough” checking area, I was asked to remove my shoes and belt, untuck my shirt, and leave my watch in a dish – I felt as if I were entering a Japanese sex party that charges by the hour.
Once in, I was singled out, along with some other people, for a more comprehensive once-over.
There I sat with the other searchees, one who looked like Ward Cleaver without the rebellious edge, another who appeared to have fallen off the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, and a finely dressed baby-faced gentleman who was missing only one fashion accessory – a “first place, Rick Moranis look-alike competition” ribbon.
Then there was me, who just arrived at the airport from a hotel where, the previous night while in the lounge trying to focus on game seven of the Pistons-Nets, somebody told me I looked like Henry Fonda. I said, “‘Grapes of Wrath’ Fonda or ‘On Golden Pond’ Fonda?” The fact that he had to stop and think about it spoke volumes.
Anyway, there we were, in the security area for some extra searching – a Barbershop Quartet of nerds, button-downs, and people who can’t go to the bathroom without a permission slip from their neighborhood association. A terrorist threat disguised as a middle aged Star Trek convention if you ever saw one.
Sitting there, I noticed the people who were being allowed to proceed with far less scrutiny. I felt like the old lady in “Airplane.” I would have felt like the old man, would they instead have cast a male in that role – played, of course, by Henry Fonda.
In security today, we have “profiling,” “generalizing,” and “shooting for the perception of fairness, no matter how illogical.”
Profiling is a science. It has helped catch countless criminals, and works well in a small vacuum (i.e., a three-person team of investigators tracing a woman’s harassment complaint from a hotel that an NBA team just stayed in). Profiling in a macrocosm is ineffective, and therefore begins to fall into the “generalizing” category.
I personally oppose generalizing, mainly because it would mean that, as a person of Irish ancestry, I’d be getting pulled over every 10 minutes by the police who were just one short of their monthly drunk-driver quota.
We’ve all heard the generalization of, “Why don’t they just check the Middle Easterners? They’re the only ones who hijack planes.” OK, they can keep themselves busy checking only Middle Easterners. Meanwhile, me, the four guys I was with, and perhaps even the likes of Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, the CEO of Tyco, and Simon Cowell just march right on by. Stop that flight!
Now we’re into the “shooting for the perception of fairness, no matter how illogical” security phase at airports. This shouldn’t make us feel much safer on an airplane than if there were no checks at all. If they wanted to give us a feeling of security, they’d spend some of those resources on ways to find out how many hours have gone by since the pilot had six shots of tequila, and to install a “Blow n’ Start” booze-breath detection ignition system on the airplane.
One thing airport security never asked me was the time honored: “Did you pack your own luggage?”
“No, I paid $10 to a man in a robe and sandals who had no vowels in his name – why?”
As for now, I’ll feel much more secure on an airplane when they focus on getting some people who look like they would be difficult to outsmart.
Airport security is federalized, so, in other words, the government is in charge of your in-flight safety. The long-and-short of the current system is this: Pretend you’re in an airport and all the screeners are members of Congress. Feel safer? Me neither.