Shoes off, computers out, hands over your head, and everything gets X-rayed. I do not mean to belittle the threat Osama bin Ladin represented and still represents, but when I am struggling to get everything, including myself, through TSA security at the airport with a scowling line of similarly put-upon passengers behind me, all I can think is, "Way to go, Osama. You have successfully annoyed me."
Of course, the TSA is the best source of information for what can accompany you in a cabin. Trust me when I say these laws, as tedious as they may be, are there for your own good, and in more ways than one. The 3.4-ounce rule for liquids is a security measure -- destructive substances over that amount could do serious damage to life and property; 3.4 ounces of lit gasoline, or even rocket fuel, would create a lot of chaos and put on quite a show, but do little in the way of anything else aside from cosmetic damage to the plane (flesh is another matter). And why does it have to be in clear plastic? Acids eat through plastic, so leave those glass, ceramic, metal, or polymer bottles and tubes at home. It will make the line move that much faster.
I sat down with Alex (not his real name), a long-time flight attendant for a major airline who worked in the halcyon pre-9/11 era, and still flies today, who helped me understand the sometimes-Byzantine rules of the dos and don'ts of flight.
"I, personally, think that allowing anything on the aircraft that could have a primary function as a weapon is ridiculous," says Alex. "We do live in a different world than before, and it needs to be controlled differently than before."
TSA security procedures today, with full-body scanners and the like, have raised legitimate question of civil rights violations, or at the very least, dignity. It has forced the TSA and Homeland Security into an unenviable position of balancing safety with freedom against the potential for extreme havoc. The long and the short of it is that no government agency wants to see you naked or feel you up; there is no conspiracy. A few swinish TSA agents, alas, but no systemic conspiracy.
However, 9/11 proved that an airplane is effectively a flying bomb. No matter how righteously indignant you get, if you do not pass security, you are not getting on that plane. Period. Buck up, swallow your pride, kiss it up to God, but you are just going to have to deal with a scan or a frisk. I agree with the TSA's caution entirely.
Simply, there is no set "look" for a terrorist; they certainly will not advertise it in an airport. There are big ones, small ones, young ones, old ones, and as Timothy McVeigh proved, white Christian ones. "Shoe Bomber" Richard Reid and "Underwear Bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab proved that planes are still threatened. No one is exempt. So even if you are Virtue Incarnate, you are treated like everybody else and screened. It is the world in which we live. It would be wondrous if it didn't come to this, but it did.
It is not to say the TSA doesn't have its lapses. Earlier this year, the sparks flew when the agency revealed it would re-allow "pocketknives" on planes, a decision that left Alex and his peers astounded.
"It was my understanding that [TSA Administrator] John Pistole felt that TSA was wasting too much time searching for items that had no possibility of immediately jeopardizing the integrity of a commercial aircraft," Alex, who was left speechless at the idea, tells me. "He wanted them to spend their valuable time looking for items such as bombs and bomb components."
But Mohammad Atta proved that something as innocent as a boxcutter can do a lot of jeopardizing. What qualifies as a "pocketknife" remains somewhat vague because of the shear amount of small blades on the market, from utilitarian Swiss Army knives to a switchblade. Passengers gasping at the thought of a body scan unified at once with the rest of the population in a commonsensical backlash at idea. The TSA has since publicly stepped away from the position.
The unsung heroes of 9/11 were the flight crews of the hijacked planes. They were the true "first responders" and the first to die. And if 9/11 proved anything, it is that the age of the hostage is over and flight attendants will now freely deck you if you seriously get out of line. Alex reveals, "Every year in my requalification training, self-defense techniques are covered. The TSA also offers a free self-defense course for all crewmembers. A metal tube at 38,000 feet is a very contrived and unnatural environment. Because of this, it needs to be kept as sterile and hyper-regulated as possible. Up there, there are no police, no military, no fire fighters, no doctors. There are no civic policy enforcers. I am trained to play all of those roles to some degree if the need arises. However, I will say that my greatest resources when dealing with a disruptive and/or violent passenger are the other passengers."
In other words, if you manage to get past ground-based security with a threatening "something," you still have a whole new world of hurt to face. If you even think of making a threat, you have not only the flight crew to contend with, you have the pilots who can depressurize the plane, send it in a such a steep rise as to squash you, or into a nosedive that will send you flying. And then there are the 100-plus passengers not required to adhere to a code of conduct. More than a few disruptive fliers have been subdued not by a flight crew, but other passengers.
"The world needs to know that even though I was hired for my exemplary passenger service skills and attention to professionalism, if the need arises, I will get ghetto in the galley with a broken wine bottle," Alex says, and he is not smiling when he says it. He is saying it to me, to you, to all those who listen, and to all those who don't. "We are taught to be creative problem solvers. There are 101 things that I can grab at any given moment with which I can disable an assailant. We can save the world with a ballpoint pen and a coffee pot. Our complacency has ended."
In other words, abide by the laws, however tiresome it may be, and your flight will be over before you know it. I said at the beginning of this article that the rules are in place for your own good, and in more ways than one. Think about that when you are zip-tied with a second-degree coffee burn and staring down the wrong end of a razor-sharp broken wine bottle because you wanted to make a point.