Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Christopher Hitchens: Terminal Futility

Routine airport security won't thwart jihadists, but it does inconvenience and endanger the rest of us.

Posted Monday, June 6, 2005, at 1:02 PM PT

Is there anyone reading this column who would agree with Mark O. Hatfield Jr., spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, that in the past year "the average peak wait time at [airport] checkpoints has dropped a minute ... to about 12 minutes"? This is what he was cited as having said, in a New York Times report of a confidential document from the Department of Homeland Security. The last time I was at Dulles Airport, the line for security began at the entrance to the terminal and wound itself in several rope-line convolutions, like a clogged intestine, for about 40 minutes. I had allowed the usual two hours and was checking no luggage, but this and other banana-republic conditions almost made me miss my plane. Nor was it a "peak time." In any case, a passenger cannot know what a "peak time" will be. Only the TSA knows how many people are booked on how many flights at a given hour and can make provision of enough machines and personnel. Or not, as the case may be.

So, Hatfield was telling me something that I didn't know. The rest of the report, however, contains things that everyone does know to be true. We learn that there is no real capacity to detect explosives, for example. And we learn that, "If, say, a handgun were discovered, the terrorist would have ample ability to retain control of it. TSA screeners are neither expecting to encounter a real weapon nor are they trained to gain control of it." Who hasn't worked that out?

I think I had also noticed that there are not enough plastic bins or tables to line them up on, and that "X-ray machines that examine carry-on baggage sit idle as much as 30 per cent of the time." The time elapsed between Sept. 11, 2001, and today's writing (1,364 days) is only slightly less than the time between Pearl Harbor and the unconditional surrender of Japan (1,365 days). And airport security is still a silly farce that subjects the law-abiding to collective punishment while presenting almost no deterrent to a determined suicide-killer.

There is one mercy at least: One no longer sees people smiling and saying, "Thank you" as their wheelchairs and their children are put through pointless inspections. But the new form of servile abjection—standing in sullen lines and just putting up with it—is hardly an improvement. One sometimes wants to ask, "What's my name?" or, "To what database is this connected" when someone has just asked for the third time for you to put down a bag and produce a driver's license. But I think the fear of making some inscrutable "no-fly" list may inhibit many people. There has never yet been a hijacker who boarded a plane without taking the trouble to purchase a ticket and carry an ID. Members of the last successful group were on a "watch list," for all the difference that made. The next successful group will not be on a watch list.

Flying from London to Washington the other day, I was told that I was no longer required to take my computer out of its case. Apparently, there are scanners that can see though soft cases as well as through the hardened lid of a laptop (and apparently the United States hasn't managed to invest in any of these scanners for its domestic airports). On the other hand, I was asked if I had packed my own bags and if they had been under my control at all times. This exceptionally stupid pair of questions—to which a terrorist would have to answer "yes" by definition—is now deemed too stupid for U.S. domestic purposes and stupid enough only for international travel. This makes as much sense as diverting a full plane that carries a notorious Islamist crooner, the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens, from one airport to another.

Routines and "zero tolerance" exercises will never thwart determined jihadists who are inventive and who are willing to sacrifice their lives. That requires inventiveness and initiative. But airport officials are not allowed to use their initiative. People who have had their names confused with wanted or suspect people, and who have spent hours proving that they are who they say they are, are nonetheless compelled to go through the whole process every time, often with officials who have seen them before and cleared them before, because the system that never seems to catch anyone can never seem to let go of anyone, either.

While people are treated as packages, we learn from the same New York Times account of the still-secret Homeland Security document that "air cargo on passenger planes is rarely physically inspected today." Imagine, if you will, the wolfish grin of an al-Qaida fan who reads that sentence. I sometimes don't want to mention all the other loopholes, in case it gives ideas to the wrong people, but just imagine for a second that we imposed our current airport rules on trains, or the subway, or the tunnels and bridges …

What we are looking at, then, is a hugely costly and oppressive system that is designed to maintain the illusion of safety and the delusion that the state is protecting its citizens. The main beneficiaries seem to be the pilferers employed by this vast bureaucracy—we have had several recent reports about the steep increase in items stolen from luggage. And that is petty theft that takes place off-stage. What amazes me is the willingness of Americans to submit to confiscation at the point of search. Every day, people are relieved of private property in broad daylight, with the sole net result that they wouldn't have even a nail file with which to protect themselves if (or rather when) the next hijacking occurs.

Last month, cigarette lighters were added to the confiscation list. There's probably some half-baked "shoe-bomber" justification for this, but I hear that at Boise airport in Idaho there's now a lighter bin on the way out of the airport, like the penny tray in some shops, that allows you to pick one up. Give one; take one—it all helps to pass the time until the next disaster, which collective punishment of the law-abiding is doing nothing to prevent.

Related in Slate

In February, Andy Bowers discovered a loophole that makes identity checks useless. Timothy Noah (not a terrorist) described how his name ended up on the No-Fly List, and in May, Keelin McDonell explained why Cat Stevens was allowed on a plane when his name is on the list. Steven Aftergood gave the legal reasoning behind the TSA's policy of secrecy, and the authors of Safe assessed the newest gizmos for finding terrorists.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair. His most recent book is Thomas Jefferson: Author of America.

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