On September 10, 2001, I flew from the Bay Area to Seattle. At the gate, my father was waiting, ready to greet me when I walked off the plane, to give me a hug, to ask about my trip, to walk with me to the baggage claim, and then to drive me home.
The very next day, of course, all of our flying habits changed.
No more family members going through security to say tearful goodbyes to children heading off to college for the first time; no more gaggles of enthusiastic greeters waiting at gates, arms full of flowers and balloons, necks craning to see if the beloved was walking up the gangway from the plane.
Nowadays, we are used to the idea that goodbyes are quick, muted affairs conducted curbside, that pickups are rushed, sweaty awkwardnesses accomplished in a cloud of car exhaust and honking horns.
Of course, we always wax nostalgic about yesteryear, preferring to focus on the good and forget the bad. My mother, for example, likes to recall the olden olden days of commercial airline travel, when passengers dressed up for the duration of the flight, when decent meals were served gratis with real silverware, when seats were wider and cushier and farther apart — maybe enough empty, even, for you to stretch out across several and sleep. But she’s a nonsmoker, so she never mentions the long-gone practice of allowing cigarette lovers to fill airplane cabins with secondhand smoke.
Still, the way we fly today makes me uncomfortable, and not just because the seats really have gotten smaller and closer together. And over Labor Day weekend last year, I realized why.
My nuclear family — two adults, two small children — took four flights to and from my cousin’s wedding in Colorado. We tried to anticipate as much as possible, from what we might need to bring on board (food, diapers, toys) to how long we might take to get through check-in and security (three hours, we have learned, is sometimes just barely enough). We looked up all the current regulations for flying with children on the Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Security Administration websites. We checked and double-checked.
And still we were caught off-guard by the unexpected, the unpredictable, the unknown. Most of it was minor, but some of it was deeply humiliating, and a little was downright threatening. We made it there and back, but we were profoundly disturbed.
To begin with, the rules of airline travel are always shifting. The last time we’d flown before the Labor Day trip was the fall of 2011; at that time, children under 12 had to remove their shoes to go through security, just like everyone else. On this trip, though, kids could keep their shoes on. Back then, children in baby carriers had to be removed to go through security, even if they were sleeping. A year later, that rule had changed, too; the baby could stay in a carrier, but the adult carrying the child had to have his or her hands wanded to check for traces of explosives.
At least those rules, however, were clearly posted at security. Other rules seemed to be verbal, and erratically enforced. Adults traveling with children, we were told more than once, could simply walk through the old-fashioned metal detectors instead of going through the controversial full-body scanners (also known as “naked” scanners) that have colonized many American airports (they’re banned in Europe). One TSA employee told us that if we weren’t traveling with children, we would have to go through the full-body scanners; refusing the full-body scanner was “not optional,” she said, despite the TSA website’s reassurances to the contrary.
Our biggest problem, though, was baby food. On previous flights, we’ve brought along commercially produced and sealed packets of fruit-and-vegetable mush, and have always had it breezily inspected and waved on through. On one of these flights, though, we were told that our baby food was “suspect” and that one of the adults in our group would have to step aside for a thorough pat-down.
I volunteered, and was told to stand on a mat just beyond the scanners. A TSA employee pulled on a pair of gloves and explained how, exactly, she was going to touch me in public. She offered me the option of stepping aside behind a curtain.
“No, that’s OK,” I said.
“Oh, yes, people used to be uncomfortable about all this,” she said, cheerfully. “But now they’re getting used to it.”
If I was going to be humiliated in the name of baby-food safety, I figured, it had better be in public, so others could see it and be made uncomfortable, too. But perhaps the TSA worker was right; the more pat-downs we see in public, the more we take them for granted.
She told me to spread my legs and lift my arms, a position familiar to anyone who watches cop shows. I thought of the recent TSA scandal at Boston’s Logan airport, where a program designed to target “suspicious” travelers resulted in harassment of black and Latino travelers.
As she ran her fingers lightly down the middle of my back and up between my legs, I thought of the man who, angry about being patted down by the TSA at the Portland airport in April 2012, decided to protest by stripping nude.
When she asked me to lift up my T-shirt so she could feel my bra’s underwire, I thought of the escalating scenario in the recent based-on-a-true-story movie “Compliance,” in which a restaurant’s staff detain, humiliate, and eventually assault a fellow employee, all because they think they’re following orders from a police officer.
Did I mention these incidents to the TSA employee? Of course not; since 9/11, we’ve all learned to keep our heads down and our mouths shut. After all, we just want to get where we’re going in the shortest time possible. So we’re willing to partially disrobe and allow public groping in the name of public safety.
Will any of this prevent terrorist attacks on airplanes? Hardly; as Malcolm Gladwell noted in the New Yorker way back in October 2001, airports and airlines institute screenings only in the wake of hijacking attempts, not as creative, preventive measures. Which means that a clever terrorist need only come up with a technique that nobody else has tried yet, preferably by finding loopholes. Those loopholes need not be hidden, either. Plastic explosives hidden in the shoes of a 10-year-old? Perfect.
“Security theater,” my husband whispered to me as we repacked our rifled-through bags. He was referring to the idea, popularized by security expert Bruce Schneier, that such public screenings and searches are just for show. In other words, people in uniform doing inspections and looking serious provides mental if not actual security.
Late in 2011, a Vanity Fair article titled “Smoke Screening” interviewed Paul Slovic, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon, about security theater:
When 9/11 shattered the public’s confidence in flying, Slovic says, the handful of anti-terror measures that actually work — hardening the cockpit door, positive baggage matching, more effective intelligence — would not have addressed the public’s dread, because the measures can’t really be seen. Relying on them would have been the equivalent of saying, “Have confidence in Uncle Sam,” when the problem was the very loss of confidence. So a certain amount of theater made sense. Over time, though, the value of the message changes. At first the policeman in the train station reassures you. Later, the uniform sends a message: train travel is dangerous. “The show gets less effective, and sometimes it becomes counterproductive.”
So if security theater is fraudulent, why do we put up with it? As a recent New York Times review of Garret Keizer’s book Privacy noted, definitions of privacy vary; Europeans tend to categorize privacy in terms of dignity, while Americans visualize privacy in terms of liberty. If true, this explains why we are increasingly willing to trade our personal dignity for what we think of as our collective liberty.
Except how free are we, really, when we allow ourselves to be humiliated and threatened by the people who are supposed to be protecting us? Flying can be liberating, yes, but how liberated can we truly feel, knowing that not only are our public security measures ineffective, but they mask such questionable private practices as the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (CAPPS), which assigns “risk scores” to every airline passenger? (Not to mention the as-yet-unknown health effects, if any, of the nation’s rapid adoption of all those full-body scanners and their X-ray emissions.)
But from the point of view of the average traveler, the biggest everyday challenge of commercial air travel is simply its arbitrariness. Will I be able to bring baby food on board, or will it be thrown in the trash? Will I waltz through the metal detector, or be pulled aside for an intimate pat-down? Will the airline staff allow my family of screaming toddlers to board early, or force us to wait until the plane is nearly full?
Some levelheaded travelers have begun to channel their frustration into organized protest. Professional musicians, for example, have always been officially told that they can bring their livelihoods into an airplane cabin — even if they have to buy a separate seat for, say, a cello. But in practice, musicians never know if airplane staff will let them board or not. So last year, the International Federation of Musicians ran a Change.org petition to demand consistent enforcement of the rules; the petition collected more than 43,000 signatures. By March 2013, the European Union had begun expressing interest in clarifying the rules.
Knowing what to expect when we fly — the simple concept of consistency — would go a long way toward alleviating the anxiety of air travel. We might even begin to abandon security theater in favor of genuine security measures.
And what about that Portland man who stripped naked in public? A judge found him not guilty of public indecency, declaring that his protest was protected constitutional speech.
So perhaps we haven’t all gotten used to the theater of modern flying — yet.