It's just after collecting my boarding pass that I usually begin to curse Osama bin Laden. Unless of course I printed the pass out the night before at home, in which case I'll wait until I get to the security barrier before getting all resentful and sweary.
Belt off, shoes off, empty the pockets of all coins and keys, check the jacket, no, bugger it, just put the jacket through the scanners as well, laptop in the tray, give myself a pat down, damn, nearly missed the phone, finally, step through, set off the alarm, give myself another patdown, wonder if it's the titanium plate in my arm, no, it's the iPod nano I forgot about. Back out to line up again, only to get caught behind some guy refusing to take off his gold chain because it's become permanently entwined with his chest hair.
And then of course there's the explosives sniffer to avoid. Am I the only one who plays a childish little James Bond game with these guys? Setting myself a challenge every time I fly, to see if I can get through without having to stand there like an idiot while they wave the boom-boom wand over me. Really. It's not that hard. I'm not going to give away my supersecret spy secrets, but you know what, I suspect even the dumbest mouth breather from the lowest ranks of bin Laden's death obssessed medieval circle jerk club can probably scoot through without being bothered by the boom-boom sniffer.
It's the bullshit theatre of security which pisses people off. Most of us accept the need for some level of threat detection and interdiction on a plane. We always will as long as we remember the footage from September 11. But it's hard not to feel that most of it is an empty show.
The requirement to produce ID at the check-in desk for instance. If you are foolish enough, or in my case recently, disorganised enough, to have to rely on checking in at the desk, you can forget about catching the flight unless you have some form of photo ID. Unless of course you get there early enough and find yourself a computer with a net connection and a printer in which case, woo-hoo! Nobody need ever know who you are, because you printed out your little barcode and you now have access to the flight. Because this is theatre, and you have played your minor role.
This, I think, is what's behind the surge of anger in the US over the ‘naked scanners’ and even more so over the enhanced pat down routine you'll have to endure should you refuse to do a little electronic striptease. Me, I'm vastly amused at the idea of some poor minimum-wage slob having to eyeball my goods while I stand there grinning like an evil loon at him.
Oh yeah, look upon my works ye mighty and despair.
I can even get a wry smile out of the idea of this poor bastard having to glove up and handle JB's hazardous materials.
“I hope you've been working out, man. Got some heavy duty gear down there. Oh. And make sure to bend your knees when you lift.”
But that's just me. I like to make my own fun.
Other people, normal people, see this sort of thing as a grotesque intrusion on their privacy and dignity. One female traveller in the US, Erin Chase, a reasonably successful author and ‘mommy blogger’, has written a harrowing and politically very, very dangerous account of her own enhanced patdown at a US airport recently.
Why dangerous? Because unlike John Tyner, the YouTube hero who threatened to have any airport security official who touched his junk 'arrested' for assault, Erin Chase actually underwent her 'assault', having no choice in the matter because she was traveling with a small child and needed to catch a flight. Her account is lucid, restrained and really, really ugly.
Unlike Tyner, she also had a profile before her fifteen minutes of real fame kicked off and she knows how to tell a story. (Although, I think Tyner came across as very articulate and intelligent in the interview link above. The Best Ever Coverage of his fifteen minutes and this whole issue, however, comes from our increasingly popular friends at Taiwan's animated news service.).
There was already a backlash building against 'gummint groping' in the US. It's possible that personified in the figure of Erin Chase, that backlash could now go feral.
It would be assisted in that by the deeply unpleasant atmospherics which already surround air travel pretty much everywhere. Unless you are paying a premium to be up the pointy end of the plane, flying is increasingly a stressful, frustrating and belittling experience for all concerned. The passengers, the flight crew, the support staff on the ground. Everyone. Well, almost everyone. At least the shareholders are getting a return on all of the cost-cutting and service slashing.
We don't have the naked scanners here yet. Or the sexual assaults. But at some point in the next two or three years there will probably be an incident somewhere in our skies which will lead a politician somewhere to think that pushing really hard to 'improve' airport and airline security might be a way to gather up a couple of extra votes.
No matter that the best way of making sure our plane gets to the end of its journey is to properly supervise the maintenance and safety procedures of airlines like Qantas. Or even to adopt a few protocols from the high security/lowBS Israeli model . No, we've already invested in the first couple of acts of empty security theatre. It's almost certain that there is more indignity and humiliation to come. More carnage too, as long as we take theatre more seriously than security.
I probably can't put it any more succinctly than this oft cited blog entry by Ed Felton at the Centre for Information Technology Policy.
Felten writes: "I'm in the security-checkpoint line at Boston's Logan airport. In front of me is an All-American family of five, Mom, Dad, and three young children, obviously headed somewhere hot and sunny. They have the usual assortment of backpacks and carry-on bags.
"When they get through the metal detector, they're told that Mom and Dad had been pre-designated for the more intensive search, where they wand-scan you and go through your bags. This search is a classic example of what Bruce Schneier calls Security Theater, since it looks impressive but doesn't do much good. The reason it doesn't do much good is that it's easy to tell in advance whether you're going to be searched. At one major airport, for example, the check-in agent writes a large red "S" on your boarding pass if you're designated for this search; you don't have to be a rocket scientist to know what this means. So only clueless bad guys will be searched, and groups of bad guys will be able to transfer any contraband into the bags of group members who won't be searched, with plenty of time after the security checkpoint to redistribute it as desired.
"But back to my story. Mom and Dad have been designated for search, and the kids have not. So the security screener points to the family's pile of bags and asks which of the bags belong to Mom and Dad, because those are the ones that he is going to search. That's right: he asks the suspected bad guys (and they must be suspected, otherwise why search them) which of their bags they would like to have searched. Mom is stunned, wondering if the screener can possibly be asking what she thinks he's asking. I can see her scheming, wondering whether to answer honestly and have some stranger paw through her purse, or to point instead to little Johnny's bag of toys.
Eventually she answers, probably honestly, and the screener makes a great show of diligence in his search. Security theater, indeed."