Saturday, September 18, 2010

Airport security, Kurt Cobain, and the Fourth Amendment

Yesterday Kathy and I flew back into the United States from what turned out to be a wonderful, much-needed and delightfully relaxing vacation - London, Berlin, visiting friends in a national park in northern Germany, then to Barcelona for 9 days of sun, surf, and sightseeing. Our return flight(s) took us from Spain through London, then Toronto before finally making it home to Texas.

For our big travel day home I found myself wearing an old t-shirt with an excerpt from the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution emblazoned on the front: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated ...." I didn't wear it to make any particular statement, it just happened to be the last clean shirt in my backpack, which was otherwise jammed with sand-covered laundry, assorted toiletries and tourist acquisitions, plus a small stack of books including several novels that I read while we were gone. (It was a welcome joy, I should add, to pull my head, for the most part, out of all the criminal justice topics covered on Grits and spend time reading good fiction.)

Anyway, as I trudged through the airport in Toronto, weary, jet-lagged and quite ready to get home, the Fourth Amendment shirt turned out to be quite the conversation starter. Fellow travelers standing in the security line first commented on it, noting the irony that we were all about to take off our hats, coats, belts, shoes, run all our belongings through an x-ray and submit to metal detectors and possible pat-down searches in order to enter the country.

One older man with apparent Tea Party leanings (judging by further, unrelated conversation) declared that if police tried to enter his home without a warrant they'd get their brains blown out with a .44 magnum. I reminded him that may turn out to be a bad idea, citing poor Kathryn Johnston's case out of Atlanta. Police broke down the 92-year old woman's door one evening in 2006 based on a "no-knock" warrant obtained with information from an unreliable (or perhaps non-existent) informant. Terrified, Johnston cut loose with a shotgun at the intruders and was gunned down by police, who tried to plant drugs in her house after they realized their error.

That tale reduced his macho bluster a bit, though he couldn't resist suggesting that such incidents might be expected more frequently under Barack Obama's presidency. I retorted somewhat disdainfully that Mrs. Johnston's death occurred on George Bush's watch, and that such incidents occurred long before Mr. Obama hit the scene and would likely continue long after. (I'd love to have heard the fellow's views if he had a chance to read Radley Balko's work on SWAT teams and police raids.) By this time others in line were listening in and also commenting on my t-shirt, with more folks further back in the zig-zagging queue straining from afar to read its text.

I wasn't really in the mood for a political conversation and was rather relieved to reach the front of the line where we handed over our passports and customs declaration to a grossly overweight US customs agent. We answered his annoying, routine questions and watched as he perfunctorily stamped our passports, then I noticed the fellow peering over his glasses at my chest, muttering the strange words to himself in a barely audible whisper as he read them.

"That's a great t-shirt," he announced with a grin, "I'm a big fan of the US Constitution, especially the Second Amendment. You know, I took an oath to uphold and protect the Constitution when I took this job," he added, "and if you ask me, these days the biggest threats are coming from within this country instead of outside it, if you know what I mean." I had in fact not asked him, but I nodded my head in agreement, even though one imagines he and I likely disagree over exactly what internal threats the Constitution presently faces.

I told the fellow I considered it rather like wearing a Kurt Cobain t-shirt, commemorating something that's dead and anachronistic, however laudable or memorable for those of a certain age who could still recall when it was relevant. This elicited a loud belly laugh. "It's not that bad," he replied with a big grin. "There are still plenty of people like me sworn to protect your rights." "Oh, then y'all aren't about to make me go through a metal detector, take off my belt and shoes and x-ray my bag about 30 feet from here?," I asked as I watched passengers piling their belongings into trays to run through an x-ray before being herded like cattle in a feedlot through a metal detector. In the background, I could hear a woman plaintively, pointlessly arguing over the seizure of a bottle of hand sanitizer. The agent shook his head and sighed. "After 9/11, everything's changed," he lamented. "Anyway, welcome home."

At this point I should mention that as a practical matter airport security is largely a joke - pure security theater. A large number of people were staffing the US security point where we all had to pass through, though about half of them appeared to be standing around doing nothing of value, chatting to one another or chiding passengers for not arranging their belongings in their rectangular trays in just the right fashion. Three different people scanned my boarding pass, including before and after entering the metal detectors, as though it hadn't just been done by somebody else several feet away. A business traveler in line with us commented that he'd traveled all over the world for his job and that airport security took longer to enter the United States than in any other country, though he added that it might go quicker if all the people standing around aimlessly or triple-checking our boarding passes were actually helping process people through the system. I readily agreed.

The screen through which another overweight man was viewing people's carry-on baggage via x-ray was visible to me for much of the time I was in line. He looked bored, understandably, and while I was there he never once intervened to determine the contents of people's carry on luggage, even though it was impossible to tell what was in them given the jumble of items travelers were carrying. For example, my wife had accidentally forgotten to remove a pair of pointy scissors from her satchel that she'd been using to cut up brochures, postcards and pictures for a travel scrapbook she keeps whenever we go abroad. She discovered them once we were on the plane, but airport security had let them through without a hitch. At least that lady had been prevented from bringing on her hand sanitizer.

In reality, the best security comes from passengers themselves and alert airline staff, not from the army of underpaid bureaucrats pretending to keep us safe at the airport entrance. The reason the 9/11 hijackers succeeded was that before that tragic day, all plane hijackings had aimed to hold passengers hostage, but literally by the end of that day it was no longer possible for hijackers to take over planes with sharp objects. When passengers on the plane that went down in Pennsylvania learned other planes had flown into buildings, they stopped the hijackers themselves and would have prevented the plane's takeover in the first place if there'd been a history of such things when it happened. Similarly, the "shoe bomber" whose failed efforts now force all of us to remove our shoes in the airport was stopped by passengers who saw what he was doing and intervened. Ditto for the "Christmas Day bomber." The Government Accountability Office has found that airport screeners routinely miss guns, bomb parts, and other dangerous objects despite all the rigmarole.

It took about an hour to make it through the airport's security procedures and get to our gate. We arrived just before boarding began; more standing in line. At the end of the long hall headed to the plane, an Air Canada stewardess cheerfully welcomed me with a notable Quebecois accent before stopping for a moment to read my (apparently provocative) t-shirt and laughing out loud. "That's an appropriate shirt to wear to the airport," she said, smiling. A steward behind her looked too and grinned: "Ironic," he said, before looking at my boarding pass and pointing us to our seats.

"You're telling me," I replied, then shuffled obediently back to my seat, anxious to put the army of airport bureaucrats behind me and shift my thoughts away from these absurdist security procedures and bury my nose in an excellent set of short stories by Roald Dahl.


Anonymous said...

Scott, Rev. Charles here.
Welcome back to the US of A. Security checks and all. Interesting tale you told there.

Anonymous said...

Liberals and conservatives agreeing on a t-shirt differently.
Maybe we are all on same side after all.

Patrick Steck said...

What does the weight of airport security bureaucrats have to do with anything?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I don't know, Patrick, but they've got some big boys working there.

Prison Doc said...

Welcome home, I'm sure the break was therapeutic.

Anonymous said...


Their weight could have much to do with our security. If they have to actually respond (and remember customs inspectors - now known as CBP officers thanks to some moronic staffer in Congress - are law enforcement positions) to a security issue that extra 100 pounds just might be the difference between life or death - mine and hers (or him). Any more questions? :~)

Anonymous said...

Instead of focusing on the dead 92 year old, it might help to remember the quote from Alexander Solzhenitsyn:
"And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?... The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin's thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! If...if...We didn't love freedom enough. And even more – we had no awareness of the real situation.... We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward."

If those who have soiled the 4th amendment had reason to actually fear death when crossing a threshold (instead of just faking a fear for show), then maybe the 4th might make a return.

Angee said...

Anon, I never thought Americans would quake in fear and so willingly give up our basic rights to a higher authority that is viewed with suspicion. I envisioned a national, united voice that would firmly reject the path that we have taken. After 9/11 I respected President Bush urging people to go about business as usual. That turned out to be impossible when everything around us changed and not for the better.
There was no unity. When tested our nation proved to be incredibly weak. Freedoms couldn’t be given away quickly enough. A rise in the terrorism alert, real or political, whips the majority back in line and cowering for government protection.
We have become prisoners in our own country. Getting out of the US also carries complications and approval. We are equipped with a passport that allows our government to track us anywhere in the world. We lost manicure scissors in customs and boarded a cruise ship filled with steak knives and other items that would made my tiny scissors laughable if intended as a weapon.
Where has freedom gone? We have given it away. We have the equivalent of 15 states behind bars and the rest of us are locked in the country without proper documentation to get out. Maybe border traffic at the Rio Grande will become a two lane road of activity with people going both directions.
There are many screams of returning to the Constitution but few actions to indicate this is the direction that our country wants to go. Instead I see a sea of people that carry an air of entitlement and expect government to be custom tailored to their personal needs. Selective freedom with no compromise and no respect for our fellow Americans is a far cry from Constitutional freedom.
When the chips were down the weak outnumbered the strong and gave up essential freedoms in the hysteria for personal protection. Problems are not solved when fear is running amok. It is a great disappointment to see the giving away of the very things other counties fight to achieve. I don’t think there is any going back. That would require a different breed of people.
Welcome home, Scott. Isn't it amazing how small the US becomes when traveling abroad?

Anonymous said...

Airport security is an open, vicious joke amongst pilots and flight attendants. Go to a bar frequented by airline folks, grab a beer, and sit back and listen to the convo. If the people the 'security' guys are trying to protect (and they ARE usually quite stunningly over-weight)have such scathing contempt for them, how can we view them with anything less than disdain?

E V E said...

It is nice that people have jobs but they would be better put to use in a security capacity training bomb/drug sniffing dogs. I asked about this in one of my classes and was told it costs a fortune to train a dog and that DFW only has three. THREE? I am like you have got to be kidding. But just like the way our troops are fighting in Af. and Iraq with their hands tied behind their backs, our huge beaurcracy seems unable to think outsde the box and find creative effective new approaches to those things that have proven ineffective.
As far as the Airport Security goes, I am afraid we have to compromise that or quit flying. The gov. knew about the threats of terrorists flying planes into buildings way before it happened and we did nothing to prevent it. An ounce of prevention is like a pound of cure. Dogs I say Dogs!!

Doug Duncan said...

"the army of underpaid bureaucrats"

Why do you say they are underpaid? They have federal jobs with good benefits, and they apparently don't have to work very hard.

Anonymous said...

Nice writing, S - enjoyed it!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Doug, on pay, see here. Google around on TSA's problems and you'll find high employee turnover is one of their big ones.

At a time when a lot of people don't have jobs, pay may be less a factor in turnover, but at $11-$16 per hour they're not exactly raking it in.

Anonymous said...

Re: the Soviet Union. The second amendment boosters still don't seem to see the irony. Right after September 11th you gave away your rights because you were comfortable with Bush, and apparently had no foresight whatsoever. Then you became uncomfortable with the next President and worried about what you had given away. It's exactly how the Third Reich and the Soviet Union came about. You had a large group of citizens who were scared and were willing to sacrifice anything to feel safe. It's why our prisons overflow. It's why we sell so many guns. None of these things have been shown to statistically make us any safer, but they let us feel like we have control.

If you drive a car or are obese worrying about terrorists or police invasions of your home is ridiculous. Those are just boogeymen.

Anonymous said...

Screw fat people! Fat bastards shouldn't have jobs!

sunray's wench said...

Scott, I'm glad you had a great holiday.

Just wanted to say, if, when I attempt to visit the US next week, I make such a comment to the border security officials as you did, I will almost certainly be escorted to a small room and interogated for a while by the nice men with latex gloves.

And I daren't mention where my husband is, otherwise I get the border official's personal opinion on how stupid I am and how my husband is the scum of the earth.

Apparently they would rather criticise me and my family, than welcome me and my money into the state.

Unknown said...

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carlagrace said...

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