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Airport Security: For What It's Worth

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Since 9/11, the United States government has flexed its security muscle at the gate concourse in every domestic airport, where passage through a security check point reminds everyone of the might of Homeland Security.

Tens of thousands of us bear this ritual in silence every day. We empty our pockets, place contents in bin, laptop in a bin all its own, coats off, luggage on conveyer. Since December 2001 we remove our shoes -- an odd homage to Richard Reid's failed attempt to blow up an airplane with a "shoe bomb" that month. Since 2006 we display our liquids and gels, limited to three ounces each, in a clear plastic bag -- the aftereffect of the discovery that year of a nascent plot to bring down commercial flights with liquid explosives.

There is no joking around at the security check point. ("I'm sorry, sir, you'll have to drink that up before you go any further." "Sir, I'd prefer not to. This vente latte is actually a liquid explosive. If I drink it too fast, it will give me indigestion.")

Nor would it be wise, at the security area, to engage in serious conversation with a fellow traveler expressing even mild displeasure with any aspect of our government. It is best to have such a discussion somewhere less subject to the suspicious scrutiny of TSA. Indeed, it feels safest to have no views, no opinions in that place. Say little; avert eyes; do not draw attention to yourself.

I like to think that in the summer of 1968 this would not have gone down so easily. It is hard to imagine Abbie Hoffman, or a young, proud Bobby Rush, the flower children of Haight Ashbury, or the Columbia University chapter of SDS silently offering their liquids and gels in plastic for inspection by a uniformed agent of The Man.

Until this month, I have always passed through security without drawing official notice.

The Saturday before last, on the trip home to Chicago after a vacation with my wife, baby daughter and stepson, I had finished going through the body scanner when I was surrounded by three large TSA agents in the West Palm Beach airport. "We will need to pat you down and check your luggage."

I was immediately angry. Is it not sufficient that you've had me remove half my clothes and scanned my body? I swallowed that thought. "Why?" I asked. For an instant, there was a flash of anger behind the nearest officer's eyes; he'd sensed my indignation. His training took over: "The machine detected something, sir. Of course, you can always decline the search."

I had no intention of missing my flight. I accompanied the three to a small room. Over my wife's protests, they shut the door, leaving me alone with them, and thoroughly searched me. The officer who patted me down was wearing latex gloves. Another officer took a round, cotton swab and wiped the gloves. I had a flash of panic then. The second officer had been behind me when he picked up the swab; I hadn't seen where it came from. This is a set up, I thought. They're planting something on me. I have been a civil rights lawyer for a long time. I know that this can happen.

Not, however, in my case. The swab came back with no gunpowder or other explosive residue.  
The officers accompanied me back to where my bags and family were waiting. "We'll need to check this one," one of them said, indicating a small day pack. "That bag is filled with the belongings of this little one," I said, nodding toward the baby. I was furious.

At this point, I must tell you about the knife in the bottom of the baby's pack. It had a black handle and a four inch blade. Sharp. Serrated.

A couple of days before, I'd used it to open a package in the rear of my father-in-law's car. Carelessly, I'd put the knife on the ledge behind the back seat when was I was finished. My wife saw it there and put it in the baby pack so no one would get hurt. Then we both forgot about it.

It soon became apparent that the officer in charge accepted this explanation. The knife would be confiscated. We were free to go. My irritation gave way, more or less instantly, to, well, gratitude.

We were lucky. It is a federal crime to board an aircraft with a concealed dangerous weapon. I could have been detained. Charged. What if Patti and I had both been charged? The children placed in temporary foster care. What a nightmare.

This might not have been resolved so swiftly -- more questions would have been asked -- if we had been an Arab Muslim family, my wife wearing hijab, all of us brown skinned and speaking accented English.

It would not have been resolved at all -- criminal charges would have been a near-certainty -- if Patti or I had somehow been on the federal watch list.

For the past decade it has been next to impossible to get on an airplane with a weapon or a bomb. This is a good thing, I suppose. It does not make us safe, of course. Buses could still be bombed, subways attacked, bridges blown, cars detonated. Risk is all around us. It always will be.

In the meantime, our collective surrender to fear is robbing of us of something ineffable and precious. For what it's worth, I'm old enough to remember the lyric from the old Buffalo Springfield song: You step out of line, the man come, and take you away. In a small way, it's become true.