Airport Security: A Keystone Kops Production

So I’m flying back to Washington, DC from Dayton, OH this evening after a nice, relaxing winter holiday, and when I arrive at the Dayton airport, I’m greeted with a bit of a surprise: they’ve got a new process for screening bags that you’re going to check in. Apparently the old way — handing the bag over to the nice person at the check-in desk, who takes it away and does some kind of crazy magic security mumbo-jumbo to it while you get coffee at the overpriced airport restaurant, wasn’t cutting it, security-wise. So now as part of our War On Terrorism ™, they’ve got a new way of handling things. Now, you go to the check-in counter, get your boarding pass, and then hump your checked bags over to a brand spanking new (and freaking huge) mega-X-ray-scanner machine, where they take your bag, run it through the machine, and then send you on your way.

Only problem is, they’re only running two (!) of these machines for the whoooole crowd of people waiting to board. So naturally, as you can imagine, the line for each is immense. Eventually some friendly TSA types come out and tell those of us near the end of the line that, if we’d prefer, we can come over to their booth and have our bags “manually checked”, instead of waiting for the Super Scan 2000 to do its thing.

Skip out on waiting in line? Are you kidding??? Of COURSE I will submit to the manual check. So they take us over to a row of desks, where a TSA employee takes your bag, swabs it with one of those things that tells you if there’s explosives residue on it, and then puts a sticker on the bag and sends you on your way.

Now, I’m not wanting to dis the TSA folks, it was clear they were struggling to deal with a poorly-thought-out process. But read over what I just described above, and tell me if there’s anything missing…

Yes! That’s right — the “manual check” DIDN’T LOOK INSIDE MY BAG! So this raises an obvious question:

If my bag can be checked manually and passed through without inspecting the contents, why do they make people wait in lines around the block to have the contents of their bags scanned???

(Note: it’s entirely possible that they scanned or searched the bag later, after they’d taken it from me. But if that’s the case, why not do that for everyone’s bags? Why make some people wait in line for it, while others get to skip out?)

So what was my experience with the new process? Well, in short, I was pretty unimpressed. Even if you give the Homeland Security types the benefit of the doubt that these things find bombs, and thus make imposing chaos on the check-in process worthwhile, they miss the bigger point that the 9/11 terrorists managed to pull off their attack without any bombs whatsoever. All they had was a few box cutters and the threat of some bombs — in other words, they were bluffing! And the thing about bluffs is, when the stakes are high and the bluff is even remotely possible, people will tend not to challenge it — people’s innate conservatism and fear of the unknown pushes them to back down. And in this case, if four guys stand up on a plane and say “We have a bomb! Allah showed us a way to sneak it past Tom Ridge”, the stakes are very high, and the threat will at least seem pretty plausible — after all, we don’t know how the Super Scanners work, we’re in no position to judge how hard it would be to fool them. For all we know, they don’t do anything at all! So even if all these measures had been in place starting on Sep. 10, 2001, it would not have made one bit of difference — the bluff still would have worked, at least on most of the planes.

This is another example of our Gummint spending tax dollars to give us the appearance of security, rather than security itself. It would be pathetic if it wasn’t so typical. The sad part about it is, we’re probably going to have to learn the difference between security and the appearance thereof the hard way, unless someone in the Gummint gets a clue.