A couple of days after the Christmas Day Pantybomber tried to light up his gusset on the approach to Detroit, I was at a small airport in Vermont shuffling through the line to what they call the “sterile” area. Anyway, I handed over my driver’s licence and, as he had done with all the previous passengers, the Transportation Security Administration agent examined it. And examined it. And examined it some more. He had a loupe, one of those magnifying glasses jewellers use to examine diamonds for any surface blemishes or internal flaws. In this case, he was deploying it to examine how the ink lies on the paper. And when he’d finished doing that he got out his UV light to study the watermark on my licence.
And, looking down at his bald patch as he went about his work with loving care, I was overcome by a sudden urge to point out that nobody had ever blown up a U.S. airliner with a fake driver’s licence. Why bother going to all that trouble when a real one is so easy to get? On Sept. 11, 2001, four of the terrorists boarded the flight with genuine, valid picture ID issued by the state of Virginia and obtained through the illegal-immigrant day-workers’ network run out of the parking lot of the 7-Eleven in Falls Church. Almost two years earlier, Ahmed Ressam, the Millennium Bomber, had been arrested on the British Columbia-Washington state border travelling on a genuine Canadian passport. In that instance, the terrorist had been stopped because the guard thought he seemed nervous when she looked him in the eye. But in Vermont the guy didn’t look me or anybody else in the eye. He remained hunched over his loupes and licences—no doubt in part because if he looked me or any other regular air traveller in the eye all he’d see staring back at him was an expression of total contempt at the pointless and stupid “security.” So they avoid looking at you, and instead peer through their magnifiers, and amble back and forth barking out the rules about how the three-ounce containers of liquids and gels have to be placed in a one-quart zip-top clear plastic bag, and rummage through your carry-on for more and more proscribed items. But they never look at you. Because they’re not looking for terrorists. They’re looking for things, and an ever-growing list of them.
Oh, to be sure, you can still find the occasional nonagenarian spinster who thinks if they’re patting her down and making her unscrew her leg brace it’s a sign that they’re being extra-super-careful about security. Which, of course, they’re not. Every minute spent on the nonagenarian spinster is a minute not being spent on, say, a nervous 23-year-old Muslim male who’s a bit twitchy because his crotch is loaded with PETN. In the end, I forbore to mock the scrutiny of my driver’s licence, as most of us do, lest the TSA stick us on the no-fly list. Even by the standards of government make-work bureaucracies, they dislike being questioned, and they seem to believe they have the power to pull you off the flight for lèse-majesté. A week after the Pantybomber, a man broke into the “sterile” area at Newark. When I say “broke into,” that’s Homeland Security-speak for “strolled into,” while crack TSA agent Ruben Hernandez had wandered away from his post and had his back turned. He wouldn’t have noticed it, but a member of the public, whiling away an hour or three waiting for an arriving passenger, chanced to see it and brought it to the TSA’s attention. They immediately swung into action and checked the surveillance cameras to get a good look at the man. Alas, the cameras weren’t recording. They required a reboot, and nobody at the TSA had got around to asking for one. Still, it looks nice and reassuring having all those cameras everywhere, doesn’t it? Even if there’s nothing in them.
Fortunately, Continental Airlines at Newark keep their own surveillance video. Unfortunately, the TSA didn’t know the phone number to call or the procedures that had been agreed on for getting hold of the backup tape.
So instead they locked down the airport, stopped all flights, pulled everyone off the plane, prevented them from getting food or drink or using the bathroom, and rescreened them all, causing massive inconvenience and loss of time and money. All because TSA “model employee” Ruben Hernandez turned his back. In the wake of the Newark incident, I received a number of emails from airport workers suggesting this sort of thing happens fairly regularly. For example, one correspondent tells me that at Detroit’s North Terminal last year some fellow sauntered into the “secure” area through the exit, bought some food from Village Pizza, and was halfway through eating it before the TSA caught up with him. Presumably the cameras were working that day.
At Newark it took a little longer. After six days, they ﬁnally found the security breacher—a man called Haisong Jiang, a 28-year-old Rutgers grad student who’d decided to give his sweetheart one last kiss. New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg is furious that Mr. Jiang may only get a ﬁne and not serious jail time. “It wasn’t some prank that didn’t do any harm,” fumed the senator. “It did a lot of harm because it sent out an alert that people can get away with something like this.”
Er, yes. But isn’t that the problem you should be focusing on? That people can “get away with something like this,” because the model employee turns his back, and your security tape isn’t running, and you don’t have the phone number for the backup.
But for a while they’ll be more careful. So the lines will move slower, and get longer. If you’re at a busy airport on a Friday afternoon, two thoughts occur:
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