Jackson Doughart
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Airport security is a waste of time

Prince Arthur Herald, 15 November 2013

he spectacle known as airport security — where innocent travelers are subjected, without probable cause, to full-body scans and pat-downs that would be illegal in any other context — exists for one reason, and one reason only: to make people feel better about flying on airplanes.

I don’t mean to say that the charade aims to quell fears that a plane could be brought down by some nut setting his underpants on fire. I mean the general anxiety that comes from stepping into a sealed aluminum tube and sitting in a chair that will soon be 30,000 feet above ground. There was indeed airport security before September 11, 2001, a tragedy now used as an open-ended licence by government to hassle airline customers in whichever way it wants.

Statistically, it is probably more dangerous to drive down the street for a cup of coffee that it is to fly to the other side of the globe. But I share with many people the intuitive unease about flying, especially when the plane tips all to one side and I can see the faraway earth straight down from my window. I’m not religious, but I do say a prayer every time I fly — usually about the time I can feel the landing gear being drawn up into the belly of the plane, always at a horrifyingly-short distance from the runway. It’s no Pascal’s Wager, since I don’t make any promises of faith or good behaviour, but I manage to telepathize something such as: “Listen dude, in case you actually are there, if you could just see to it that this bird lands safely, it would be much appreciated.” Why not, after all?

Nevertheless, the relationship between general flying anxiety and tedious passenger checking has no apparent logical connection, calling into question the necessity of the entire process.

Perhaps the case for airport security would be more convincing if it were more obviously effective. Two recent experiences of mine suggest rather gaping holes in the operation. The first involved a recent trip to the United States, which included a connecting flight in Toronto. Normally, one has to be rechecked at this stage to go through the American customs process. Not so for me, as I could not actually find the place to do this. Pressed for time, I then transgressed into the international departures area with no interference. No flashing lights or sirens, no drawn pistols, no warnings from personnel. I was on my merry way, and the security apparatus’s Texan contingent didn’t require that I answer any questions either. So far as anyone knew, I’d never left Canada.

Now if I can get through this easily — and I was actively looking for the customs area — how difficult do you think it would be for someone with malevolent intentions to do so?

Another occasion involves a European trip, again leaving from Toronto. A month previously, I had been asked by my grandmother to bring her a large kitchen knife, as she had misplaced her own. By the time I arrived, her couteau-de-maison had been found, and I never thought about the one I’d brought again. Until, that is, I was halfway across the Atlantic and decided to reach into my bag for a book. Instead, I got the knife, which I’m quite certain is not allowed on contemporary air travel.

On the one hand, this may show how lax the screening process actually is. On the other, the episode would underscore the amount of profiling that goes on: “Well-dressed blond boy wants to take a cleaver on the plane? No problem!”

Speaking of profiling, I think the indignation about the lack of conspicuous ethnic selection is misplaced. It’s a way for people to express frustration without accepting the logical conclusion of their complaint: namely, that the whole regime is silly and demeaning. Yes, the exercise has become a parodical instance of political correctness, where five-year old girls and wheelchair-laden grandfathers are assessed as just another potential threat. Of course they aren’t. But stupid, as well, is the belief of the whining travelers, who want the ethnic profiling to be more ostentatious.

What do they expect, exactly? That they should stroll through with only an “enjoy your flight” from the guards, while every Omar, Hussein, and Mohammed (99.99999 percent of whom are as innocent as they are) gets the shoes-off, pat-your-privates, peeping-tom treatment? Get real.

The most important security reform made in recent memory, having nothing to do with passengers, is that of the locked cockpit. If they’d had that before, 9/11 could never have happened. And for all of its indiscriminate procedure pushing, airport security takes away from innocent travelers any means, apart from their bare hands, of fighting back against real instances of harm.

Airport security ultimately feeds an illusion of perfectible safety which is unattainable. Its defenders also misunderstand the nature of the jihadist enemy. People who are determined to kill infidels to edify a depraved religious ideology, and maybe to earn themselves a few dozen virgins to boot, are going to be undeterred by a few procedural bells and whistles. If they can’t do airplanes, they’ll do bridges and buses and museums and malls. Pick your poison. Such is the nature of war. In the meantime, we would do well to remove the farce of airport security — one of the most frivolous and inconvenient excuses for big government of our age.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com