Wednesday, 24 November 2010 18:50

Airports Gropes, Scans and Bumbling Fools

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The day before Thanksgiving marks the busiest travel time in the country as millions of younger Americans return to their roots to celebrate with their families that most unique of our holidays.

But the route between their new home and their old home will be marked with traffic snarls and lines at the airport.

The former because we own so many cars (no need to apologize) and the latter because our country is so large and our population so mobile, passenger air service makes it convenient and in some cases necessary.


But in 2010, those lines at the airport are going to be longer.  A lot longer.


And for that, we can thank Osama Bin Laden and his stooge disciples, the bumbling shoe and underwear bombers in particular.


The 9-11 hijackers utilized box cutters and fear that they were armed with something more potent to manifest their martyrdom and murder.


In December 2001, Richard Reid used something a more technical in his attempt: 10 ounces of C-4 plastic explosives hidden in his shoes.  Thankfully, Reid wasn’t that bright.  He apparently wore the shoes around, which either absorbed moisture or got wet in the rain, and thus he had trouble detonating the shoe bombs.  Also deserving of credit are passengers and flight attendants who physically subdued Reid while in the act of trying to light the fuse. 


Had Reid succeeded, the explosives would have done enough damage to bring down the transatlantic flight.


Mr. Reid is the reason why we must all shuffle about airport screening areas in our socks so our shoes can be checked through x-ray machines to see if they’ve been hallowed out.


Four years later British intelligence exposed a plot to smuggle explosives in gel form concealed in sports drinks on to transoceanic flights in an attempt to simultaneously blow up the planes while over the Atlantic.  This plot was nipped in the bud before it was near execution and dozens of people were arrested.  One of those conspirators had wide-ranging access at London’s Heathrow Airport.


They are the reason why we must buy mini-sized toothpastes, shampoo and mouthwash and stick them in zip lock bags if we don’t check baggage (something people try to avoid due to fees) and why if we’re thirsty, we have to pay near baseball stadium prices on bottled water and sodas on the other side of the security screening area.


And then there is Nigerian national Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, AKA the underwear bomber.


A child of privilege, the highly educated Abdulmu…no, he doesn’t deserve to be known by his name…he shall henceforth be referred to as the “panty popper”…decided to end it all for himself and 289 people on Christmas Day 2009 on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.


Unlike Reid, who tried to blow the plane up in front of everyone- perhaps a sign that he was hoping someone would save him from himself, the “panty popper” set his plan in motion as the Northwest Airlines Flight 253 neared Detroit away from prying eyes in the privy.


Once again, luck was on the side of the passengers as the explosive device didn’t work as planned with the “panty popper” setting his leg and part of the plane’s interior wall on fire.


A Dutch passenger tackled the would be martyr while flight attendants (who seem to provide more of a service than just providing people drinks) extinguished the flames.  The “panty popper” had chemical explosives sewn into his underwear, which a standard metal detector would not pick up.


In other words, the “panty popper” used a smuggling technique not too far removed from that employed by my fraternity brothers who wished to secret whiskey in Tiger Stadium: liquids in plastic packaging hidden in an area nobody was likely to check..


And it is thanks to the “panty popper” we must all be zapped in a giant clear chamber that checks under our clothes, in our body crevices, douses with radiation and maybe makes us become sympathetic to the approaching out of space visitors looking to take over Earth.


It is this latest indignity that has people angry, as people tend to link radiation with cancer, with most people believing the alternative is letting a low level government employee getting to second base on us.


Well folks, I have some bad news: last week I got the Bruce Banner treatment and had to be groped anyway.  In other words, it’s not an either/or.


Such treatment has led folks to angrily quote the Declaration of Independence, Sean Hannity, Edmund Burke and Ron Paul at high volumes in the presence of TSA workers, whom I imagine more than a few are happy to no longer be employed at Walmart.


In a recent column, George Will opined that the elaborately intrusive TSA screening system is theatre intended more to reassure than protect.  To a degree he’s right.


Notice how the security policies come AFTER the failed or foiled attempts.  In other words, the government agencies are reacting to and not anticipating for Al-Qaeda’s end around plays.


That’s the part that bothers me the most.


But it does provide a modicum of protection against the acts of terrorism by making things more complicated for the bad guys.  Remember how easy Mohamed Atta & Co. had it, walking right on board with weapons?  Now things are as complicated for the terrorists are they are for travelers.


No walking in with sharp objects (or knitting needles).  No plastique (or silly putty for junior).  No gel-based explosives (or hair gel for those who must have managed hair).  And no chemical based liquid accelerants (or that bottle of Aquafina I bought at the Exxon for 99 cents).


And with the new scanners that can peep anywhere except our souls, no smuggling any of those things in an uncomfortable place.  And I’m not talking about the backseat of a Volkswagen.


So if terrorists are largely prevented from running things through the actual checkpoints, then they need to expand their conspiracy…which increases the chances of a bust via someone with second-thoughts, a heavy conscience, a girlfriend who talks too much and/or a sleeper agent. 


And the cost of this added layer of protection/irritation?


According to an AP story that ran on the frontpage of last Friday’s Wyoming Tribune Eagle (Cheyenne), $175,000 per scanner.


From my personal experience, removing every little thing from your pockets.  Everything.


So your wallet, money clip, lucky fava beans, etc. makes it through the x-ray machine before you make it through the ray-gun booth.  That had me sweating more than the microwaves running through my body.


According to the article in the aforementioned daily, there are two kinds of scanners: the millimeter wave units and the backscatter variety.  The former emits a weak radiation that is harmless; the latter emits X-ray like radiation, which experts claim are insignificant. 


How insignificant might you ask?  It’s less radiation than one is exposed to during a dental x-ray or from flying in the plane itself, which receives a big dose of it from being closer to the sun’s rays. 


Each machine can scan 350 people an hour.  Optimally.

As the technology is new, the TSA people not overly skilled in its operation and travelers ornery, things don’t go so smoothly.


For example, while boarding a flight to Denver the early morning line at Moisant’s Southwest gate (one of the faster security lines) stretched to the gift shop.  After waiting patiently, I finally went into the booth, was zapped and then I had to stand there.  Two people ahead of me was a guy that needed to be checked, necessitating a male “toucher”.  After he was give the once over, I was stuck standing in the booth as the next person head of me was female and needed to be vetted by a female so the first checker had to go back.


I was out of the booth when I had to wait again as, you guessed it, the male checker had to come back.  After being patted down, I scampered to my flight gate with belt, possessions and shoes not in their usual places.  My high “B” number made academic by the security gate delay as almost all of the other passengers were already on board.


Rather than having separate scanners for male and female with appropriate staff to do the mandatory body checks (which seems unnecessary since the scanner should pick up more than a hand feel), the TSA check was a Three Stooges operation.


So if you’re one of those people traveling this Thanksgiving week (or any other week in this new reality of ours), allow me to share some advice.


1)      Add another hour, thirty minutes minimum, to your airport arrival.  What used to take less than 30 minutes will take an hour, etc.  The TSA isn’t familiar with the new machinery and you have to remove a lot more now, so that’s going to back things up.


2)      Save the drama for your congressman.  The TSA people don’t make the rules, they just clumsily enforce them.  Rather than quoting the second hour segments of radio talk show hosts who rant about the TSA but fly on private jets, bear it (you’re not obligated to grin).  If you don’t like it, don’t fly and/or write your congressman and US Senators..  But please do not cause a scene.  Making the family behind you miss their flight isn’t being patriotic just because you’re pissed off.  Really.  How much more different is being disruptive in the airport security line than it was for those anti-war protestors in San Francisco who unwisely decided to recklessly block thoroughfares to vent their spleens about George W. Bush?  Not a whole lot.  Blog. Write. Phone in your protests. But don’t go Patrick Henry on TSA workers unless you have a lawyer with too much free time on his or her hands.


3)      If you request to not go through the scanner, expect to be thoroughly groped.  The bomber who could be behind you in line doesn’t want to go through the scanner either, but for different reasons as terminal illness isn’t much of a concern.



While there are more ways for terrorists to strike at our country than simply bringing down planes, airports are a favorite target.  And even the most comprehensive security measures cannot fully protect people.  The precautions that have been put in place are not the best, but are simply the best available.  However, the pre-existing screening devices and systems that were previously in place didn’t do the job and we can’t count on Al-Qaeda to always send in bumbling agents to do their bidding. 


Mike Bayham is a political consultant in south Louisiana.  His political column is posted at

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