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Security Theater

[Photo by Patrick Smith]

I’ve written before about airport security theater, and I’ve linked before to Patrick Smith’s Ask the Pilot blog at Salon. (Smith’s latest post, from two days ago, brings news that the TSA, in a rare loosening of security rules, is allowing airlines to hand out plastic kiddie wings again.) I would like here to bring to your attention a longer piece Smith has written.

The over-riding theme of Smith’s essay is that the heightened airport security rules of the past decade have more to do with us and our fears than with heightened dangers in the sky, a point he makes by reviewing a series of pre-9/11 air crimes starting in 1970. One of the longer stories in the essay is a recounting of Smith’s experience with TSA officials when they find in his bag the standard knife that his airline distributes to first- and business-class customers on the plane itself.

Much of what Smith says will be familiar. And exasperating. Yet, it is worth reading as an excellent overview of the madness of contemporary security theater. Here’s a passage about the limits on carrying liquids through security that got my attention.

The three-once container rule is silly enough — after all, what’s to stop somebody from carrying several small bottles each full of the same substance — but consider for a moment the hypocrisy of TSA’s confiscation policy. At every concourse checkpoint you’ll see a bin or barrel brimming with contraband containers taken from passengers for having exceeded the volume limit. Now, the assumption has to be that the materials in those containers are potentially hazardous. If not, why were they seized in the first place? But if so, why are they dumped unceremoniously into the trash? They are not quarantined or handed over to the bomb squad; they are simply thrown away. The agency seems to be saying that it knows these items are harmless, but it’s going to steal them anyway and either you accept it or you don’t fly.

Yes, of course! The TSA isn’t serious. They don’t actually think your liquids are dangerous. But they’re going to mechanically apply the rule that you can’t carry too large a container on, then throw your confiscated, non-dangerous container in the trash. What better example is there that this is pure theater?

Categories: Security, Travel
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