Mark Pendergrast

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Airport Blues

by Mark Pendergrast

NoteI wrote this essay several months before Christmas of 2009, the day on which Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up an airplane by igniting material secreted in his underwear.  It will be interesting to see what new security measures we will now undergo for the next decade as a result.

I am sitting in the JFK airport terminal, waiting a couple of hours for my connecting flight, typing this on my laptop.  I don’t mind sitting here all that much, even though I’m not fond of the endless announcements, junk food, and general travel malaise reflected in the faces of all the people who are in transit with me, sharing this familiar limbo-land.

What I do mind, however, is the ever-more-complex and time-consuming process of getting to this point.  You all know what I mean – the mind-numbing, anxiety-provoking wait in the line to pass the security checkpoint.  I want to complain.

That’s not unusual.  Everybody would love to complain, I’m sure, because it’s like a scene out of a post-modern Dante, or a Monty Python skit.  Yes, yes, I know that there needs to be some kind of security screening to keep someone from lugging a bomb, gun, knife, or other nasty implement aboard.  And I know that sweet old lady in line in front of me might be a terrorist.  Nonetheless, I want to complain, and now I will.

One of the reasons the security-check takes so long is that a nutcase put a bomb in his shoe a few years ago and was going to blow himself up on an airplane.  So now all of us forevermore have to take off our shoes and put them on the conveyor belt to go through the magic screening device, even that baby in her mother’s arms.

More recently, another maniac apparently planned to blow himself and another plane up with some kind of liquid explosive.  It has never been clear to me whether this was really a serious threat, but now we can’t even bring bottled water aboard a plane, or any other liquid sloshing in a container larger than a three ounce bottle.  No more shaving cream, shampoo, orange juice.

And, of course, I had to take my laptop computer out of its case and put it in a separate little bin to go onto the conveyor belt.  They’ve been making me do that for so long, I sort of take it for granted.

I wouldn’t mind all this if it made any sense, but it doesn’t.  Tell me, what difference does it make whether my laptop is out of its case or not?  They used to make me turn it on every now and then, perhaps to make sure it really was a computer and not a bomb (though if I were smart enough to put a bomb in my computer, wouldn’t I be smart enough to have it boot up, too?), but they don’t do that any more.  Can’t the seeing-eye machine through which the conveyor belt goes x-ray my laptop computer through its flimsy bag?

The same logic applies to the shoes.  Why in God’s name do we all have to remove our footwear – thousands, millions of times a year — just because some loony managed to stuff explosives into his loafers?  Couldn’t they check out the shoes while we wear them, while we walk through that portal that beeps if you breathe the wrong way?

Better yet, why not just have each passenger climb up on the conveyor belt and lie down, face up, feet first, to go through?  Make it an MRI machine and you could do medical diagnoses while you’re at it.  And you could have a New Age practitioner do Therapeutic Touch (which involves no touching, just hand-hovering over your energy fields) while you glide by, healing all your invisible ailments.

Speaking of New Age, it also occurred to me that we could all change our mindsets as we wend our way through the serpentine lines approaching the security checkpoint.  They remind me of the spiritual labyrinths my wife enjoys, where you wend your way by circuitous routes to the meditative middle.  This is a supposed to promote a peaceful attitude.  Why not pretend you’re in such a mode as you snake along towards the security nirvana machines?

But back to my complaints.

This morning, there was a woman running up and down the line while we waited to go through this ordeal, offering baggies and advice.  She wore a shirt that said TSA, which stood for Transportation Security Administration, I think.  Over and over again, this poor woman had to explain that only 3-ounce size containers of liquid, or smaller, would be allowed as carry-ons, and they had to be stored in this magic-sized baggy.

This is the latest and perhaps stupidest airport security requirement.  Assuming I were smart enough to create a liquid explosive, don’t you think I could make three ounces of it effective?  And what about solid plastic explosives?  Couldn’t I make some that looked like a piece of baloney?  Perhaps they should ban carry-on sandwiches.

The fact is, the security measures make no sense.  They are simply reactions to specific incidents or threats, and once they are instituted, they become part of the ritual that we all suffer through, for years to come.  Like many religious practices, airport security measures simply become dogma, without much questioning allowed.

And what about other modes of mass transit?  Why don’t we have to go through this before we get on a train, bus, or subway?  Wait, wait, never mind, don’t give them any ideas.  Forget I said that.

I just thank God that no one has yet tried to blow themselves up by lining their underwear with dynamite, or, worse, by stuffing a suppository of nitroglycerin up their you-know-what.

I can picture a time when, in order to fly on an airplane, we will all have to strip naked, submit to a search of every orifice, and then proceed to the terminal, in hopes that we finally arrive at whatever destination we must reach.

Or maybe we’ll just stay home.  It would be a lot easier.