Anticlimax at the TSA

We arrived very early for our flight, fearing long waits for our turn at being groped. But in fact there were no queues at the security screening, and more TSA people than I have ever seen in one place.

At our concourse (“D”) they had both metal detectors and what I think were backscatter machines right next to each other. Most people were being run through the metal detector, a few through the scanners. None of us got picked for it; we all went through the metal detector and that was that. (Once again my metal valve didn't set it off.)

Then we spent a very long time in the airport waiting for our flight.

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7 Responses to Anticlimax at the TSA

  1. I thought I’d give you a view of how this feels to a foreigner (I’m British) visiting the USA.

    First, your country is scary anyway. There are people who are basically clerks employed to check documents (passports), who have handguns. Coming from Britain, our worst-case scenario is that we are shot. Being subjected to X-rays strong enough to kill 16 people per billion is not a concern when we could get shot.

    Also, we’re visitors. This is your country with your laws, and if we want to come in then we have to jump through whatever hoops you want us to jump through. Want me to juggle three water-filled balloons? OK, if that’s what it takes, I’m not going to complain. If security gets too bad, I simply won’t visit any more (which is my father’s attitude, after he and a hundred other people were subjected to petty and unnecessary security at Miami airport en route to a cruise ship).

    That said, it’s my experience that if you get pulled out of line for “special treatment”, you can actually get through the security system quicker. Normally, you stand in line, take off whatever random items of clothing the particular airport deems could be weapons-grade, and place these along with your laptop, liquids and any other bits and pieces either in separate trays or the same tray, depending (again) on what this particular airport resolutely and unwaveringly insists is The Only Way to do it.

    However, should you be pulled aside for being a shady character, then so long as you obey every whim of the TSA officers you’ll simply breeze through. On one trip to the USA a couple of years ago, I’d booked solo flights between a bunch of cities and only had hand luggage. My boarding cards all came with SSSS printed on them, which meant I fit the profile of being a potential, er, whatever kind of dangerous foreign person makes a series of solo, hand-luggage only flights between US cities. The lines were long for regular passengers, but not for those of us lucky enough to have the SSSS mark. The lines for that were instant, the processing swift, and I got to eat some of the chocolate I had packed in my bag. Sure, my privacy was invaded by a frisk down, a “would you open your bag please sir” and sometimes a stand-in-the-machine-that-sniffs-for-explosives, but hey, as I said, it’s your country, and if you want me to wear a clown hat while playing bongos with knitting needles, OK, I’ll just go along with that; just don’t get out the guns.

    If you’re travelling in your own country, you don’t get to say that you simply won’t bother going there in future if the security gets too ridiculous, so I appreciate that your issues are different to mine. Also, some countries may decide to take revenge (I heard that Brazil had special security for US visitors that it doesn’t subject anyone else to, not because it believes US citizens are terrorists but because it wants them to know how Brazilians feel getting touched up by immigration officials – I’m not sure if that’s actually true, but it ought to be).

    Much of this anti-TSA rhetoric is to do with the TSA’s view that it rules by divine right. It could do things much better if it took a leaf out of the books of other people who rule by divine right, such as virtual world customer services (see http://metaversemodsquad.wordpress.com/2010/11/22/community-management-for-the-tsa/). Yes, it’s great being a god, but you don’t have to be a vengeful one.

    This is only a phase, though. We take off our shoes because someone once tried to blow up a flight with a shoe bomb. We take off our belts because someone once tried to blow up a flight with a belt bomb. We have people groping our groins because someone once tried to blow up a flight with a groin bomb. Sometime soon, someone will try to blow up a flight with, oh, let’s say a necklace bomb, or an earring bomb, or a hairpiece bomb, or a spectacles bomb, and we (well, not me personally) will have to take those off, too. Then, we’ll have a laptop battery (http://xkcd.com/651/) bomb, or a mobile phone bomb, which will make security even more tedious. Bad news for you, if someone with a terminal disease and a suicide bomber mentality has a bomb placed surgically inside them once, you’d get pulled over every time for your heart valve. In the end, there’ll be so much to search that it will be impractical to do it, so we’ll have to accept the risk just like with trains.

    In the meantime, we foreigners visiting the USA merely have to decide whether the security procedures are so bad that we don’t want to visit as often, if at all. Whether “bad” is pat-down searches, being zapped by radiation, time in line, trigger-happy officers, intrusive questioning, anal probes or anything else is for the individual to judge.

    It’s the same for any security procedure. When I post this, I have to preview it as a slightly tedious sp*m reduction measure. OK, I’m up for that, it’s your blog and I want to post on it. If you asked me to respond to an auto-email within 15 minutes of the post to prove it really was me posting, though forget it…

    Richard

  2. michael says:

    Conversely, when I moved to the UK with a spouse work visa, on arrival I was required — without any warning — to have my lungs x-rayed for TB, although the US is not know for having an epidemic and I had no symptoms. The machine they used looked like it came out of a 30s horror movie, and probably had dated back to the 50s. I hate to think how big a dose they used. But it was accept it or be turned away, no job for me. Of course if I had been a mere tourist, I could have had a six month visa and given everyone in the UK my (non-existent) TB, no one would have been any the wiser.

    My point being that in many of these routines, the US imitates the UK.

  3. Ah, well see, the UK isn’t allowed to do racial profiling because that’s, er, racist, so they have to subject to their procedures what they can argue are proportionate numbers of people who don’t have TB so they can catch the ones they think might have TB but whom they couldn’t otherwise test for fear of seeming to pick on them. They are picking on them, of course, but this way it doesn’t count as abusing their human rights (or at least no more than it’s abusing anyone else’s, eg. yours). Basically, they want to test all those people from the Indian sub-continent who come over having married members of their extended family, and whom they believe may have TB because, well, there’s probably some reason…

    That machine quite possibly was from a 1950’s horror movie, or World War 2 weapons research. It probably not only detects TB, but removes it from your lungs on account of how it puts out enough radiation to down a V2 rocket. Either that or it did nothing at all, like most of our speed cameras, and is designed to make people who have TB think twice about visiting fortress Britain but not actually stop them.

    Airport security is still at paranoid levels here, as no Prime Minister is going to reduce security in case some suicide bomber strikes and the PM gets the blame. We’re unlikely to be on the receiving end of any new arbitrary rules, though, because this particular brand of Conservative and most Liberal Democrats are actually in favour of civil liberties and are rolling back some of Labour’s more oppressive edicts. Ones that can be used for non-related reasons are particularly in the firing line, such as allowing the police to stop and search random “suspected terrorists” (ie. 100,000 people, of whom 90% were non-white), none of whom are ever charged with terrorism offences. Oh, and seizing Iceland’s UK assets under anti-terrorism laws is a no-no, too.

    What would help roll back ineffective yet tiresome security here is if it were rolled back in the US. At the moment, the UK and the US seem to be stuck in some kind of feedback loop, though, each one citing the behaviour of the other as a reason to ramp up security.

    Richard

    PS: Currently, there’s a plan here to cull badgers because they give TB to cattle. Obviously an infected one must have come in on a tourist visa.

  4. michael says:

    I think the UK and the US seem to be stuck in some kind of feedback loop.

  5. michael says:

    Note that the above “michael” is not the proprietor of this blog.

  6. OK, well in that case I retract my reference to exploding heart valves.

  7. Ann Bartow says:

    Tough audience! Hope you are doing well. I’m guessing you are passing on the AALS but if I am wrong let me buy you and Caro a nice veggie dinner?

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