James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne.
James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.
Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.
Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
Through the past decade I've argued that the most depressing and insidious aspect of America's "security theater" response to the 9/11 attacks is its ratchet-like nature. You can always add new security measures, or more precisely things that give the appearance of increased safety. You have a very hard time ever taking them away.
Thus Richard Reid puts some explosives in his shoes in 2001, and nearly a dozen years later tens of millions of U.S. passengers are still taking their shoes off in security lines. (They don't do this in most other countries.) Officials thwart a plot to use liquid explosives in 2006, and ever since then we've had the "get rid of that bottle of water" rule and all associated effects.
The problematic point, again, is the one-way nature of these security reflexes. Politicians and regulators have every incentive to add them, and also every incentive not to take them away. For background on the ratchet of security, see two items from 2010 here and here, plus this interview with the head of the TSA from about the same time (plus this).
All this is why I congratulate the TSA for its gutsiness in daring to move back the ratchet, in saying that it's not going to worry about little knives on planes. Patrick Smith, of "Ask the Pilot," summarized why this makes sense when the decision was announced a few days ago:
TSA ... might not be willing to admit it, but they seem to have come to terms with two simple truths.
The first is that a potentially deadly sharp object -- a knife, if you will -- can be improvised from virtually anything, including no shortage of materials found on airplanes. Even a child knows this....
The second truth is that, from a terrorist's standpoint, the September 11th blueprint is no longer a useful strategy....
Conventional wisdom holds that the attacks succeeded because 19 hijackers took advantage of a weakness in airport security by smuggling boxcutters onto jetliners. And conventional wisdom is wrong.
What the men actually took advantage of was a weakness in our thinking, and our presumptions of what a hijacking was, and how one would be expected to unfold, based on the decades-long track record of hijackings.
As Smith goes on to explain, and as has been discussed here over the years, "another 9/11 attack" will never occur. The flight crew won't allow it; the passengers won't allow it; the element of unimagined surprise was gone within hours of the original attack, when the passengers of United Flight 93 heroically took on the hijackers rather than letting their plane be used as a guided bomb.
If you want to know why this move was gutsy and why the TSA deserves -- and needs -- public support for this kind of choice, you could reflect on the panicky political reaction it provoked. Just before leaving Shanghai for D.C. I caught some of it on Piers Morgan's show. Chuck Schumer, Ed Markey, John McCain, and Morgan himself were all upset that the TSA would make this "risky" move. I don't yet see a transcript, but The Vergehas a summary. For instance here is Schumer's view, from a statement:
"Now is not the time for reduced vigilance," he said in a statement, "or to place additional burdens on TSA agents who should be looking for dangerous items, not wasting time measuring the length of a knife blade."
Oh please. This is less like "reduced vigilance" than like "sensible risk assessment." The main danger the TSA needs to worry about with airplanes is explosives on board, whether carried into the cabin or checked in cargo. If it tries to guard against everyconceivable other threat, including 3-inch knives, from every single member of the flying public, it might as well not let anyone fly at all. The otherwise-admirable Ed Markey gives us the reaction that would keep TSA from ever undoing the ratchet:
"In the confined environment of an airplane, even a small blade in the hands of a terrorist can lead to disaster."
Patrick Smith makes the sanity-restoring counter point:
We need to get past the emotionally charged style of security-think that ultimately makes us less safe. These new measures are sensible, and meanwhile TSA can, or should, concentrate or more potent threats to safety -- your safety as well as mine -- such as bombs and explosives.
As does former TSA director Kip Hawley, here. Meanwhile politicians who give in to fraidy-cat reactions make it harder ever to evolve a sustainable security policy. That would be one in which we guard against the most catastrophic threats -- in the airlines' case, onboard explosions -- and concentrate on dangerous people -- while accepting other risks as the price of a free, non-police-state life. The politicians now fretting about the TSA have slowed the process of restoring normal free American life.
I don't often find myself saying this, but: good, brave decision, people at TSA.
Which the critics and reviewers, with their fancy emphasis on "plot" and "casting," might not encourage you to do. But this is what my wife and I unexpectedly ended up doing last night after trawling through the TiVo to see what movies it had hauled in. Reason One: This movie humanizes the TSA. It had to happen sometime.
Reason Two: The dramatic payoff, which I can reveal without spoiler danger, occurs when a previously downcast and disrespected character demonstrates his overall success in life (plus success with the girls) by becoming ... a Cirrus SR-22 pilot!
Good to see a movie that is so true-to-life in depicting the markers of suaveness and accomplishment. __
Bonus reason to see the movie: the very edgy Krysten Ritter, best known as the doomed consort of Aaron Paul/Jesse in Breaking Bad, returns as the sarcastic, put-down-look-that-could-shoot-a-Predator-drone-out-of-the-sky friend of the leading lady.
Bonus proof that the She's Out of My League guy figured out exactly the right way to demonstrate his omni-directional appeal and sophistication: Angelina Jolie flies this plane too. So there.
A little more than a year ago I mentioned the case of Shoshana Hebshi, a young American woman who lives in Ohio, is married, and has twin sons. Hebshi was born in California to a Jewish mother and a father originally from Saudi Arabia.
On September 11, 2011, she took a Frontier Airlines flight from San Francisco through Denver to Detroit. You can read her whole account of what happened once she got to Detroit, but this is the summary: After the plane landed, it parked for a while without going to the normal gate. Then heavily armed security forces came onto the plane and came to the row where Hebshi was sitting. They handcuffed her and the other two people in that row. The three passengers were marched off, searched, detained, and interrogated as possible terror threats. On what grounds? The two men sitting next to Hebshi, whom she didn't know and who didn't know each other, were dark-skinned South Asians, and another passenger or a member of the crew became suspicious of them. As Hebshi said in her initial post:
Someone on the plane had reported that the three of us in row 12 were conducting suspicious activity. What is the likelihood that two Indian men who didn't know each other and a dark-skinned woman of Arab/Jewish heritage would be on the same flight from Denver to Detroit? Was that suspicion enough? Even considering that we didn't say a word to each other until it became clear there were cops following our plane? Perhaps it was two Indian man going to the bathroom in succession?
The FBI's attitude at the time was, Better safe than sorry. According to the AP:
Detroit [FBI] spokeswoman Sandra Berchtold said ultimately authorities determined there was no real threat.
"Due to the anniversary of Sept. 11, all precautions were taken, and any slight inconsistency was taken seriously," Berchtold said. "The public would rather us err on the side of caution than not.
Today the ACLU filed a complaint against Frontier Airlines, the local airport authorities, and various FBI, TSA, CBP, and other federal agents for abusing Hebshi's rights. You can read the ACLU's news release here, and the formal complaint in PDF here. Samples from the complaint:
2. An American citizen born in California, Ms. Hebshi was arrested and detained because of her ethnicity and her seat assignment: she has an Arab last name and was seated next to two men of South Asian origin, who each allegedly used the lavatory for ten to twenty minutes during the flight. Ms. Hebshi did not know these men, nor did she speak with them or leave her seat at any time before landing in Detroit.
3. Although Frontier Airlines never suggested that Ms. Hebshi had engaged in any suspicious behavior, Frontier Airlines staff provided her name to federal and state authorities when reporting the allegedly suspicious conduct of the men seated next to her on the plane....
5. During her several hours in detention, Ms. Hebshi was subjected to an invasive and humiliating strip search, which required her to strip naked, bend over, and cough.
6. Ms. Hebshi, by her attorneys, now challenges the discriminatory conduct of Frontier Airlines, which identified her as a "suspicious" passenger based on her ethnicity, race or national origin, resulting in her arrest and detention.
As with the glider pilot held incommunicado last year as a possible terrorist threat, this is offered as part of the ongoing chronicles of the security state.
Good news from our friends at TSA: they are getting rid of the hated (by me) Rapiscan "backscatter" screening machines like the one shown at right. These are the scanners in which you stand between two big, opaque boxes, raise your hands, and have X-rays shot at your body. The systems measure the "backscatter" radiation that reflects back from hard and soft surfaces on your body and clothing. Radiation in such backscatter systems is much weaker than medical X-rays, which are of course meant to go right through your body. Still, it is ionizing radiation, which is guilty until proven innocent in terms of possible health effects.
The TSA had decommissioned about one third of its Rapiscan systems already and now will get rid of the rest. Details from BBW and, with additional tech details, from Wired. I've gone through these systems only once during their roughly two-year run. That was at (surprise!) Dulles airport last year, where I'd edged my way over to the metal-detector-only line but, seconds before stepping relievedly into the innocuous metal detector, I'd been waved over for a Rapiscan screening. I said "opt out," as I had in all previous Rapiscan encounters; I was taken through the metal detector (!) to a little holding pen to wait for "male assist"; and then I watched the clock tick on for 15+ minutes as departure time drew near. Every man has his breaking point, and missing the flight was mine. I knuckled under and meekly asked permission just to go through the machine.
The full-body screeners the TSA will now use are the "millimeter wave" scanners like this one from L-3. These I un-complainingly go through, although I am always darting my eyes around in search of a metal-detector-only line. (TSAStatus gives you crowdsourced info on what kinds of scanners are being used in different parts of different airports.) I don't mind the millimeter waves systems because, based on all the science I've heard of, the electromagnetic waves they use -- essentially, radio waves -- are innocent until proven guilty when it comes to health effect. (For a more skeptical view of the L-3 systems, see Lisa Simeone's TSA News Blog.)
The TSA appears to have pulled the plug on Rapiscan principally because of concerns about privacy rather than about health. In specific, Rapiscan could not meet the TSA's schedule for designing new Congressionally mandated privacy-protecting software. For my money, passage of such a mandate should raise Congress's approval rate from about 12% all the way up to 14% or 15%. Whatever the impetus, this is a positive step.
I've now had increased experience with the government's "trusted traveler" ID system. Despite my shifty eyes, I have now qualified for a "trusted" card. This system deserves more careful discussion, which I'll try to do soon; mainly it's another positive step. For the moment, let's recognize a rare reversal of the otherwise-ever-advancing ratchet of security-theater measures. And adios to Rapiscan.
Reminder of our ongoing theme: All the varied elements of "soft power" -- those that together enhance a nation's prestige, moral influence and suasion, ability to make others willingly support its interests, etc -- depend less on expensive "image-building" campaigns than on an accumulation of unplanned, candid glimpses it gives of its real nature and character. It's true of people, and true of entire societies. As mentioned previously here, here, and here.
Today's China installment: The government has denied a visa to the former prime minster of Norway, apparently out of ongoing pique over the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the still-imprisoned Liu Xiaobo. In case you've forgotten, the Peace Prize, unlike the other (Sweden-based) Nobel awards, is handled by the Norwegians, although the prize committee is separate from the government. I do give soft-power points to the robustly nationalist Global Times in China for reporting on the controversy at all, at least in the English edition and albeit with a comforting pro-government spin:
The GT presentation of the government's rationale:
China's decision to deny a visa to a former Norwegian prime minister should not be over-interpreted, officials say, despite analysts saying the move reflects lingering frosty relations between the two countries.
Former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, whose term in office ended in 2005, was invited to attend and moderate a World Council of Churches (WCC) meeting this week in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province. However, he was denied a visa without reason, Aftenposten, Norway's largest newspaper, reported Tuesday.
Bondevik told the newspaper his visa denial was "probably" linked to his support of the Nobel Committee's decision to award its 2010 peace prize to Liu Xiaobo, an imprisoned dissident.
However, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin stressed on Wednesday that the case should not be misconstrued.
Chinese citizens are denied visas daily by foreign embassies and consulates and visa policies vary by country, he said.
On the US side, here is our own soft-power development: the TSA is expanding its operations overseas! Hoo boy. From the NYT:
As with the China-Norway dispute, see if you feel better or worse about the government's position after reading the explanation. As laid out in the Times story, with emphasis added:
The thinking is simple: By placing officers in foreign countries and effectively pushing the United States border thousands of miles beyond the country's shores, Americans have more control over screening and security. And it is far better to sort out who is on a flight before it takes off than after a catastrophe occurs.
"It's a really big deal -- it would be like us saying you can have foreign law enforcement operating in a U.S. facility with all the privileges given to law enforcement, but we are going to do it on your territory and on our rules," the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, said on a flight back to the United States from the Middle East, where she negotiated with leaders in Israel and Jordan about joint airport security programs. "So you flip it around, and you realize it is a big deal for a country to agree to that. It is also an expensive proposition."
It's long been the case that passengers on flights headed to the United States -- from Asian countries, Europe, Australia -- have to go through extra screening procedures at those foreign airports, compared with passengers headed anywhere else. But actual overseas TSA presence .... this can be expensive, in a variety of ways.
Yesterday Jeffrey Goldberg told the astonishing story of his mother-in-law's run-in with TSA screeners, and I had complaints of my own. I followed mine with a quote from a stalwart Republican reader who said: the Bush Administration may have set this machinery into motion, but isn't it Obama's responsibility now? Why, he asked, do liberals act as if
...DHS is apparently some sort of unmoored federal bureaucracy, unanswerable to the White House, randomly stopping innocent people and embarrassing the United States.
If you guys [ie, people who criticized Bush-Cheney security excesses] act like our President can't control these people (DHS/TSA), who will?
The full answer, of course, involves the ratchet effect of "security" measures. It's easy for politicians to slap on extra "precautions," in the name of keeping us safe; and by the same logic it is hyper-perilous for any politician ever to suggest their removal. After all, eventually there will be another attack, another death, another thing that has gone wrong -- and at that moment all fingers will point at the leader who "let down our guard." I made that case more fully back in 2010.
Here are two other specific answers. First, from Jim Kakalios, a physics professor at the University of Minnesota:
Muons have a half-life of 2.2 microseconds. In less time than that, the GOP would be howling for President Obama's head if he were to unilaterally disassemble the TSA. Consider the reaction from the right when some idiot FAILED to ignite a bomb in his underwear.
I do not know what the President's own views on this matter are, but your reader, who states that he is a conservative, should not be surprised or disappointed that Pres. Obama has not, all on his own, changed the structure of the TSA. It has been made abundantly clear that the President would be forced to pay a terrible price for such a common sense move.
Regarding your reader who sees the "unmanageable" TSA as a symptom of our inability, as a nation, to control our government:
It would almost be comforting to think that as a nation we all hate the TSA, dread the ever-tighter security ratchet and have nothing but contempt for security theater. I say "almost" because the corollary would be that your correspondent's right and the lunatic unpleasantness is a sign that government is already out of control.
But there's a much simpler explanation, which is that, unlike you and me (and, I assume, unlike your conservative correspondent) most people in this country don't fly very much, and when they do, they don't expect to enjoy it. Many people in this country (even otherwise quite sensible people) are at least a little afraid of flying, and many people in this country are afraid of terrorism, and both fears are far out of proportion to the actual risk of either; terrorism on an airplane is the stuff of nightmares. Any politician that made reining in the TSA a cornerstone of his or her campaign would attract a small constituency of aviation buffs and frequent flyers -- and a storm of gleeful attack ads accusing said politician of being weak on national security and soft on terrorism.
(The same of course goes for the INS and for Customs and Border Protection, in spades. Most Americans don't travel internationally, don't speak a foreign language, and don't believe the rest of the world has anything to teach us -- certainly nothing important enough that making it easier for scholars, artists and tourists to visit the US would be worth the risk of making it easier for illicit immigrants to sneak in and take our jobs.)
I don't think that as a nation we've lost control of our government. But I don't assume that as a nation we all think the way I do, either. If we want to change the way Homeland Security behaves, first we need to change the way our neighbors want it to behave.
P.S. I would love to see good statistical evidence that I'm wrong! Then maybe we could present that same evidence to some politicians' pet pollsters.
China: Earlier this month, in Shanghai, passengers who were peeved about a long delay stormed out of the terminal onto the taxiway, milling around amid arriving airliners.
Taking no chances, this week airport authorities in Dalian decided to keep passengers amused during their delays. The obvious solution: bring in teams of cheerleaders.
That story comes via ChinaSmack, which has many more pictures of the performing troupes. Also this shot of the "fog" that caused the delays in Dalian. (Thanks to reader Z.)
2) Russia. Via Moscow Times, news that travelers going through TSA-style screening in Russian airports will be allowed to keep on their belts and shoes. And -- gasp!! -- they will be able to bring water and other liquids right onto the plane! On the other hand:
Flammable substances such as vodka will still be banned.
The joy of that sentence is of course the illustration that comes after "such as." You can think of the ways that sentence would be completed in different cultures around the world.
3) Spain. Combine gusty crosswinds with a photographer next to a runway, and you have another set of dramatic shots of airliners crabbing their way toward a landing, this time at Bilbao's Loiu airport. (The link is to a BBC site, with pre-roll ad.) For previous crosswind adventures, see this and this.
4) America. Meanwhile, in depressing airport-security news: - A four-year old girl in Missoula arouses suspicions that she might be a terrorist courier.
Brademeyer's mother [grandmother of the little girl] had triggered an alarm and was awaiting a pat-down when Isabella ran to her. That's when Transportation Security Administration officers told Brademeyer her mother could have passed something to her daughter during that brief encounter. "They said (to Isabella), 'You need to sit down right now!' and they told me, 'She made contact!' " Brademeyer said Tuesday afternoon. In her Facebook note, she wrote, "When they spoke to her, it was devoid of any sort of compassion, kindness or respect. They told her she had to come to them, alone, and spread her arms and legs. She screamed, 'No! I don't want to!' then did what any frightened young child might, she ran in the opposite direction. "That is when a TSO told me they would shut down the entire airport, cancel all flights, if my daughter was not restrained. It was then they declared my daughter 'a high-security threat,' " she wrote.
- In New York, a 7-year-old girl with cerebral palsy is involved in the same sort of incident. Picture and description from The Daily:
With her crutches and orthotics, Dina cannot walk through metal detectors and instead is patted down by security agents. The girl, who is also developmentally disabled, is often frightened by the procedure, her father said.
Marcy Frank [her mother] usually asks the agents to introduce themselves to her daughter, but those on duty on Monday were exceptionally aggressive, Joshua Frank said, and he began to videotape them with his iPhone.
"And the woman started screaming at me and cursing me and threatening me," he said
More on the episodes here. I don't have time now for the full argument about the balance between "perfect" security and civic liberty. There's more about it here and passim. Yes, any toddler could be an explosive-carrier working with her grandmother. Yes, a disabled girl could conceivably have weapons concealed in her crutches. And by the same logic, every van going down the street could be carrying bombs, and every passer-by on the sidewalk could be carrying a gun. (In some jurisdictions, most passers-by probably are!) A system that "defends" itself by applying worst-case logic/paranoia to every possible contingency will soon have little worth defending.
UPDATE: I wrote the material above at home, but didn't post it, before heading out to Dulles airport for a flight to LAX at noon.
I love airplanes. I love airports. I detest Washington Dulles airport, for reasons not solely related to its TSA procedures but significantly affected by them. Including one just now that I am too angry to write about in ways I won't regret. (Enforced several-hour cooling off period begins as soon as the plane door closes in a minute or two.)
But it prompts me to quote this note from a reader that came in recently:
In your own post on the Khan story, you once again write as if Homeland Security was some sort of independent federal entity like the Federal Reserve or (my personal favorite as a chemist) the Chemical Safety Board -- answerable to no one but themselves. That's not true, is it? DHS and their behavior are somehow connected to the executive branch, right? Why can't President Obama do something about this?
I will not hide my political preferences -- I am a conservative, and I have voted for the Republican in the past. But (as I said in my very first e-mail to you on this issue), it was my hope that the Obama Administration would change the TSA's procedures.
Perhaps I'm too blinded by my political preferences to understand this issue. But I see it with (wonderful, intelligent, very liberal pop culture critic) Alyssa Rosenberg's complaints about Khan's detention as well. Once again, DHS is apparently some sort of unmoored federal bureaucracy, unanswerable to the White House, randomly stopping innocent people and embarrassing the United States.
If you guys act like our President can't control these people (DHS/TSA), who will?
I cannot state how much this small issue is coloring my perspectives on our federal government and our ability as a nation to have control over it. If I have voted (and I did, indirectly, much to my chagrin) for the creation of a unchangeable, unmanageable federal bureaucracy that can never be corralled or corrected, I should learn my lesson and never support the creation of a federal office again.
I don't reach quite that conclusion, as I'll go into more another time. But I will be reflecting yet again these next few hours on the varied excesses of the security state.
Update-update: Just saw this from Jeffrey Goldberg. Now the door is closing.
1) Permanent emergency. Kip Hawley, right, who was TSA administrator during GW Bush's second term, has an important and eminently sensible-seeming big essay today in the WSJ on re-thinking airport security. I was out of the country during most of his time in office and have never met or interviewed him, so I don't know how what he says now matches what he did then. Also, I have not yet read his new book laying out his views at greater length. But at face value this essay makes convincing points about "security theater," which I hope will carry extra heft because of his background.
Most of Hawley's points accord with my pre-existing views, so naturally I think they're correct. But on one, he has changed my mind, or at least opened it. If you've been in countries where you can keep your shoes on when being screened -- as I've recently experienced, for instance, in both Australia and China -- you are amazed by how much this reduces the cumbersomeness and delay of the screening process. Hawley says he came to TSA determined to change that rule but became convinced that it still mattered. You can read his case for yourself.
Here is a point so obviously true that I wish Romney and Obama were competing to embrace it. An item on Hawley's must-do list is:
Eliminate baggage fees: Much of the pain at TSA checkpoints these days can be attributed to passengers overstuffing their carry-on luggage to avoid baggage fees. The airlines had their reasons for implementing these fees, but the result has been a checkpoint nightmare. Airlines might increase ticket prices slightly to compensate for the lost revenue, but the main impact would be that checkpoint screening for everybody will be faster and safer.
2) I opt in! As I've mentioned more than a few times, I take a dim view of the TSA's new "backscatter" full-body-scan machines. That is because they use X-rays, and my policy toward ionizing radiation is to avoid it when I can. Yes, I am aware that sitting at high altitude inside an airplane exposes you to extra cosmic radiation. But unless you travel in a lead-lined plane, which creates engineering challenges of its own, that's an inextricable part of the flying equation. About backscatter machines you have a choice, and I have chosen to opt-out.
But if my concern is about needless (in my view) exposure to X-rays, then there is no reason to worry about the similar-seeming but technically different other kind of full-body scanner. This is the millimeter wave machine. Sometime later I will describe a meeting that Jeffrey Goldberg and I had, in February, with TSA officials to explain how these machines work, and what images the operators see. The point for the moment is: millimeter-wave machines are of course based on a form of radio-frequency transmission, not X-rays. I know that there are scenarios and hypotheses in which radio-frequency waves can theoretically be dangerous. But my working policy is: X-rays are assumed dangerous unless demonstrated to be safe Radio waves are assumed safe unless demonstrated to be dangerous.
So I recently opted-in to my first millimeter-wave scan, at DC's National Airport, and lived to tell about it (although I look for lines with metal detectors as my first choice). Here's the handy guide. (roundish in shape, transparent open sides): I opt in.
Backscatter scan (two big boxes that you stand between): I opt out.
3) Or are you just glad to see me? A reader who has lived and worked around the world sends the not-entirely-constructive-in-spirit plan he has for his next trip through security.
My prank is somewhat tasteless, so be forewarned. It's taking Jeffrey Goldberg's kilt proposal and turning it up to eleven. I want to opt-out while wearing a large dildo strapped to my inner-thigh. The look on the screener's face when he discovers it would be priceless. As far as I can tell, the list of prohibited items says nothing about large latex appendages, so I couldn't be accused of trying to smuggle anything in.
Of course, with my luck, the whole situation would spiral out of control and end up going viral on the internet - not exactly the way I wish to gain international notoriety. It also strikes me as a good way to get fast-tracked onto the No-Fly List.
Pleasurable to think about, but never something I'd actually do.
Which brings us back to a central argument of Kip Hawley's piece: that the cookie-cutter experience most passengers have with the TSA makes it harder for travelers to think of the agency as helping us all avoid extreme risks, and easier to think of it as a rote rule-enforcer to be exasperated with, and to think subversive thoughts about. In the long term its effectiveness depends on people feeling that they are working with the TSA rather than against it. Let's hope Hawley's essay makes a difference.
Re the 'beautiful women' articles... you might give a plug for Didi Tatlow's recent piece in the NYT/IHT. If anything I think she has understated the problem -- women's role in society is one area in which China has been unambiguously losing ground for the last couple of decades.
The article is sobering, especially in contrast with this more upbeat take. Sample from Tatlow's:
Women's incomes [in China] are falling relative to men's; traditional attitudes are relegating women to the home; and women's net wealth may be shrinking. While female parliamentary representation elsewhere is rising, the percentage of women in China's national legislature, the National People's Congress, has flat-lined for decades at just over 20 percent....
China -- such a rising force in other fields -- is not emulating India, Europe, Latin America or African nations like South Africa and Rwanda in thrusting women to the fore.
In part, this is because the Communists fear exactly what they see in Ms. Liu [a woman who has run for office.]: an individual demanding rights in a one-party state. As she put it, "Actually, the problem is that no Chinese citizen has any status."
In my Obama article, I talked about the pluses and minuses of the prominence of Clinton-era veterans in the Obama administration. Glastris addresses that point directly in his editor's note, and says that the interaction reflects well on the Clinton and Obama presidencies alike.
3) Yesterday Jeffrey Goldberg posted one of the latest TSA-skeptic videos that has drawn a lot of attention (ie, that many people have graciously been emailing me about), plus a TSA response. The other recent critique, if anything more pointed and fundamental, is here. More ahead on this topic, but for the moment these are both important to consider.
Two powerful forces. When they collide, which will prevail?
As it turns out, it's no contest. A reader writes about what played out at this year's Carnaval:
This video touches on two of your themes: airport security and cross-cultural differences. It's a bloco, or parade dance party, at Santos Dumont the city airport for Rio de Janeiro. Minute 1:30 to 2:00 has the best sambaing. [JF: Yes, by all means see at least that part. And here is more on the namesake Alberto Santos-Dumont.]
I doubt that the same joie de vivre is possible in a TSA-sanctioned environment.
I share such doubts. On a more positive note, soon I will offer a declaration of peace, at least on one front, between my own personal preferences and the rules of the modern TSA. Meanwhile, Viva Brasil! __ Update. A reader who travels very frequently in and out of China's main airports was in Beijing Capital airport today. He sends a shot of the security line a few hours ago at what is now the second-busiest airport in the world.
Passengers are entering the screening queue from the left of the scene above and passing through metal detectors there. Then they head toward their planes (including the man walking toward the camera at the left). The reader writes, under the subject line "Beats TSA":
Greetings from Beijing Airport! Last year I sent you a photo of the TSA equivalent and it's still so much better than TSA! You could say in software terms it's a much better UX! [User Experience.] Every time!
These are in five distinct modes. After this I will taper off for a while. Plus, there's another debate to watch!
Theme one: making the best of things.
As someone that enjoys a drink as much or more than the next guy (and is also frugalish), the fluids rules for flying were a huge bummer for me because it was my practice for morning flights to build myself a nice big bloody mary in a disposable bottle for consumption as I passed my way through the security apparatus and inevitable downtime before the flight. Rather a good deal compared to the pathetic offerings for top dollar otherwise available to travelers.
Which brings me to my travel tip: Minis (the tiny little liquor bottles) happen to fit into your TSA quart sized baggie and are perfectly legal to take through security. A bottle of OJ on the far side of the line and you're in screwdriver heaven. Although, please be discrete as the US still has insane open container laws.
Which brings me to my story: Not long after I figured out this loophole, I tossed my baggie full of minis in the x-ray bin and the TSA screener looked at them and gave me a broad grin and said, "Now there's a man 'at knows how to fly." To which I could only grin and nod in agreement.
Theme two: don't blame the government, plus stop whining.
Because TSA is a government agency people seem to take extra delight in mocking or questioning it.
It is useful to remember that we had x-rays, security, and security personnel before TSA ever existed. Some of those folks were far less trained, less professional, and far less knowledgeable than what we currently have now.
For people who think this is just security theater, fair enough. But at least the cast now has better actors and the performances tend to run more smoothly.
I agree about the extra edge of anti-government hostility -- though if Wackenhut and other private firms (Blackwater! even under its new name) were back in charge, we'd have the offsetting "rent-a-cop" slurs. The X-ray point is not correct: in the old (pre-9/11) days, airports used metal-detectors only, not the "backscatter" X-ray scanners and "millimeter wave" devices that have recently been introduced.
Theme three: TSA solidarity.
As I was exiting screening this morning I overheard two agents discussing Sen. Paul and his recent "issue"(?) in TN. Their take was that he was seeking special treatment as a politician and that the TSA couldn't possibly do anything wrong. I thought this was pretty amusing and also wondered if their opinion extended to the entire organization or just to the screeners? I have never met any low level employees who ever believed that management was competent. Does the TSA defy this trend?
Theme four: We're not "in decline," we're just acting stupid.
I don't think [America's backwardness with airports and their amenities] it's a sign of a nation in decline... To me, what is striking is how deliberate it seems. I understand that the airports of poor countries often look grubby - there just isn't money around to keep them squeaky clean and well repaired all the time. In the US, it looks like the expression of a country that just can't be bothered (collectively) to have good public infrastructure. When I'm waiting in this or that line at Dulles (which I do quite a lot) I'm not thinking, "Oh no, the Chinese will have built three of these by the time I'm done here", I'm thinking, "why don't they care enough to pay for decent airports"?
Having to go through immigration and recheck your luggage so that the TSA is just the icing on the cake seems to me another symptom of this. It doesn't even serve a mock purpose (like taking off your shoes), it just doesn't make any sense at all. Surely the US government would have noticed this at some point, so why can't they be bothered to change it?
Of course I can look at this from the inside, I've lived here long enough to understand the politics and the path dependency and the odd attitudes towards anything "public". But sometimes, I just don't want to. Those are also the moments when I really hope that ten years from now, I'll still visit the US often enough, but live somewhere else.
To round this off, theme five: We can't do anything about it.
As you yourself stated: it's impossible for anyone to reduce the security theater because of the risks involved, both physical, and certainly if it was a political initiative. If President Obama even hinted publicly that he wanted to make travel more convenient by reducing TSA security, or even just supported such an idea, the Republican field would immediately pounce on that as "criminal negligence" and "exposing the American people to danger." And then if something did happen, that's it. Obama's finished. He'd have no supporters. Like the isolationists before Pearl Harbor, the minute a disaster occurs, all the people complaining about the inconvenience and humiliation would shut up immediately. Nobody is going to listen to reasonable arguments against security theater when several hundred Americans are dead.
Politicians and other leaders have nothing to gain by maintaining the current level of security, but they have everything to lose by weakening it. The trickle of gratitude that would result is not worth risking the tidal wave of condemnation if something then did occur. "And after all, the American people are safer with things as they are, inconvenient though they be, right?" goes the reasoning. So it's in everybody's interest to just keep things as they are.
The only way to do it would be to do it slowly and "anonymously" over a long period of time.
With that, it's time for another GOP debate! And, the promised SOTU notation is now done and should be posted when we get all the formatting worked out.
If you haven't seen it already, it is worth checking out this minute-long clip from the Nashville Tennessean, showing Sen. Rand Paul during part of the hour-plus period he was in a TSA cubicle in Nashville because of a disagreement about whether he needed an extra pat-down. Paul is hidden behind the column for the first few seconds of the video, then he emerges holding a cell phone to his ear and sits down in the chair on the left.
Obviously this minute doesn't show us everything about one hour; we're not seeing the full context; and so on. But with those caveats, it's worth watching Paul's demeanor in light of police claims that he was being "irate."
The theme in some of my recent TSA-related grievances has involved just this kind of situation: at some airports agents have seemed (to me) to be on hair-trigger to show their authority and put passengers in their place for non-compliant "attitude." Again, we don't know everything that happened with Rand Paul, but in the clip he looks more sedate than most of us would be if held for an hour, forced to miss a plane, and as a result not being able to give a scheduled speech at a major rally on the National Mall.
I do recognize the impossibility of what the TSA and its leaders are trying to do. -If they give their agents any leeway or discretion, there will be a million complaints about judgment calls going one way or another. -If they don't, we have a US Senator (or any other person) made to cool his heels for an hour when there are no reasonable grounds to think he's a security threat. -If the TSA treats everyone as a potential terrorist (which is the de facto current practice, although Administrator John Pistole said in an interview last year that he was trying to move away from it), it creates the patdowns-for-toddlers episodes. -If it doesn't, it opens itself to other complaints. -If it acts as if any cost or inconvenience is justified if there is the slightest risk of attack, it can nearly destroy the travel system in order to save it. -If it doesn't -- and something happens -- it knows that the same Congressmen who complained about security theater will soon be presiding over "who let the terrorists through?" inquisitions.
So, it's tough. But I don't think we've worked out the sweet-spot compromise solution. More on this soon, after Jeffrey Goldberg and I have another chance to interview TSA officialdom.
A few other reader notes. On the bright side:
I live in Des Moines, and I have found, not surprisingly, that the smaller airports are better as far as TSA kindness goes. The agents in here in DM are very nice, and even crack jokes. Of course, it would not surprise me if I ran into them at the mall - it's a small city.
In Orlando recently, the agents were professional and fairly nice, but they did confiscate a fruit cup from my 7 year old daughter. That kind of thing is utterly amazing to me. It was a clear plastic, see through cup. Really?
It could be worse elsewhere:
Have you ever been to DeGaulle in Paris??? TSA seems like heaven.
Regional airports in the USA, for instance Gerald R Ford in Grand Rapids MI, are friendly, fast, handy, clean, well-run.
Detroit is better than it used to be. O'Hare is HUGE, but fairly well-managed.
I'm with Louis C-K, at least as far as US airports are concerned. It used to take you 4 months to get from NYC to SF. Now it takes 4 hours, and you SIT IN A CHAIR while it's happening. Keep perspective; get a grip; plan some recovery time for when things do go awry. We're blessed even in the midst of our chaos. And avoid DeGaulle like the plague. The plague, I tell you.
I am a fan of the classic Louis C-K riff on how impatient, whiny, and complainy we all become. But airline travel is not a good illustration. Travel from NYC to SF is incomparably faster, safer, and easier than it was 150 years ago. It is slower and harder (though even safer) than it was 25 years ago.
Further in this vein:
I'm a book editor in Chicago. This note is to encourage you to maintain your "hard-over" attitude on the TSA and their hateful, ruinous effect on commercial air travel, which was very recently one of the great democratic glories of modern life.
Their work is transparently, obviously pointless and stupid; please continue to point this out at every opportunity your position affords you. The public justifications for it are nonsensical. The backscatter machines, while I'm not really that concerned about their safety, provide featherbedding to crony companies at enormous public expense. But the most serious problem is the plain fact that the rules and routines are facially absurd and contemptible, far beyond any other aspect of government from IRS to state DMV.
The entire operation is an embarrassment to the United States and its citizens.
More in the queue, and after our interview. Also, see this new Pro Publica article on a proposed bill requiring independent testing of the TSA's full-body X-ray scanners -- which, it's worth remembering, are prohibited in Europe.
In response to my contention that American airports had become run-down and off-putting to an extent that Americans who don't travel internationally may not realize, several "on the other hand" replies.
First, a reader who is highly experienced in and around aviation sends a report of two recent "humane" interactions with the TSA. I've changed the names of the airports he mentions so as not to make the TSA people in question too easy to identify:
The first case was in December at [a major West Coast airport]. I was in line for security behind a late 20ish pregnant woman. As we got close to the front of the line she leaned over and asked the TSA person at the mileage elite/first class line (who had nobody in his line), "I'm just curious, are these things safe for pregnant women, do I have to go through?" My first thought was that she just sealed her fate for extra security.
She was obviously pregnant, and sounded generally concerned and wanting to know if the x-ray boxes in our path were safe.
"They say they are" was the response from the TSA agent. She didn't seemed all that satisfied.
A few moments later he leaned back and said, "once you're past the ID check, go over to the line on the far [left or right], there isn't a machine over there."
As somebody who also opts out at every occasion, I was surprised and pleased by this piece of advice. And sure enough, both of us walked to the far-side line after the ID check and were whisked through a metal detector only. No x-ray in that line.
I have since made a point of going through this same line at that airport twice more and each time with the same no x-ray/opt out decision needed.
The next experience happened [yesterday] departing [a major East Coast airport]. After opting out of a millimeter wave scanner (I just opt out of everything on principle), I was politely walked to a location for the pat down. Just as the pat down began (professionally and politely), another agent walked over and said he was going to send my carry on suitcase though the x-ray again for a second screening. No problem.
After the pat down was complete, the TSA agent said to me, "sorry about that, I just wanted to make sure you weren't one of us."
I was confused and it must have showed. He explained that the reason he was extra careful with the pat down - which was actually not the most careful one I have received - is because after I opted out and my bag warranted another scan, he thought I must have been a TSA tester sent through to check the system. He then explained to me how that happens every so often and the little things that the testers have on them to test the TSA agents.
So two stories of rather polite TSA agents sharing a little inside info with me. One an advice on how to avoid the x-ray scanner, the other on where to hide something if I wanted to emulate where the testers apparently think the sneaky traveler carries contraband.
Now, from a reader who says US airports aren't really that bad:
On the aesthetics, cleanliness, and amenities of US airports: I haven't been through every major airport in the US, but I've been through many of them. This weekend I was at SeaTac, Newark (where I had to spend the night in the terminal), and Orlando. In my time I've been through Atlanta, Houston, O'Hare, Midway, JFK, Dallas, Minneapolis, etc. Most of the hubs.
Most of them are pleasing enough, in Holiday Inn kind of way. Most of them are clean. Most have decent amenities, at least until the late evening hours. They could all use Japanese-style "tube hotels" in them, for the case of longer times between flights, and they could all use more truly personal services.
I've only found one that was wholly unacceptable, and that, unfortunately (given the nature of international flights) is Newark. It's an open pit, a noisome, foul, offending spot ("things rank and gross in nature possess it merely"). To put it literally and succinctly, it stinks.
Just one man's opinion, without tears.
And further on this theme:
I've always found Heathrow to be one of the worst experiences one can have to change flights. If one has a connecting flight, you still have to through the customs rigmarole. If I ever have a transfer in London that is less than 2 hours, I usually decline it because there's an even chance I'm missing my connection. CDG, while not as bad, is pretty bad as well, since you have to go through security unless you're connecting within the EU.
Often I forget to mention items appearing on Patrick Smith's Ask the Pilot site, probably because I've assumed that people interested in airlines, airplanes, airports, and aviation security will already have seen them.
Here's an exception I want to highlight (and thanks to reader SG). That is because it clarifies something that is well known to people who have spent time outside America but that often goes unnoticed or undiscussed inside our country. I'll let Smith lay it out:
With scattered exceptions, U.S. airports don't have a whole lot going for them. Putting aside aesthetics, cleanliness and a lack of public transport options, another thing that doesn't help, and which you don't hear about much, is that American airports simply do not recognize the "in transit" concept. All passengers arriving from overseas, even if they're merely transiting to a third country, are forced to clear customs and immigration, recheck their luggage, pass through TSA screening, etc. It's an enormous hassle that you don't find in most places overseas. Compare it to Singapore, Dubai, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and so on, where transit passengers walk from one gate to the next with a minimum of fuss. [JF note: The exception in my experience is Frankfurt, where connections are often a hassle.]
Here's how this hurts us: Flying from Australia to Europe, for instance, a traveler has the option of flying westbound, via Asia (namely Singapore, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Hong Kong) or the Middle East (Dubai, Qatar), or eastbound via the U.S. West Coast (Los Angeles or San Francisco). Even though the distance and flying times are about the same, almost everybody will opt for the westbound option. [ie, avoiding America.] The airports are spotless and packed with amenities, while the connection is painless and efficient.
Change planes at LAX or SFO, on the other hand, and you'd have to stand in at least three different lines, be photographed and fingerprinted, collect and recheck your bags, endure the TSA rigmarole, and so on, just to change planes. Few passengers will choose this option, and I suspect it costs our airlines many millions annually in lost revenue. Indeed, this is part of what has made carriers like Emirates, Singapore Airlines and others so successful.
This might seem a small thing -- hey, so what if these foreign jet-setters endure some hassle? -- but I think it is emblematic of some cumulatively larger issues. Americans are habituated to griping about our airports and airlines, but I sense that people haven't internalized how comparatively backward and unpleasant this part of our "modern" infrastructure has become. Along with our freeways, bridges, subways, buses, and other transport-related aspects of our built environment. To put it another way: we love to bitch about American "decline" but are usually thinking in metaphorical terms, or about whatever political trend we deplore. The truth is, when you go to other countries you see that many of them seem more modern and efficient than America does. In a very tangible sense America looks old and "declined."
I think there is a similar failure of imagination about how hostile-seeming the whole process of getting into America has become, even for those fully vetted with green cards or visas -- or for those merely "in transit," as Smith's item notes. Most Americans still assume that foreigners all dream of coming here. The "Build a Fence!" crowd thinks all Mexicans are desperate to crawl in and steal jobs; the "America the Beautiful" group [which is most of us] thinks Japanese and Germans want to come enjoy our scenery; the idealists at universities or tech companies are proud that Indians, Chinese, and all others want to come here for the research labs and free-speech seminars. And to some extent each is true. What's left out of the mental picture is the increasing outside-world impression of the U.S. as one giant TSA screening-line. We may overestimate how much general unpleasantness other people will put up with -- if they have a choice of traveling (or studying or investing) somewhere else.
Maybe this is why I (like Patrick Smith) am so hard-over on the anti-"security theater" campaign. I keep seeing reminders elsewhere that it doesn't have to be done in our heavy-handed way. I mention all this in a "State of the Union" spirit. Also, I'm biased toward seeing a nation's transportation and aerospace ambitions as a proxy for its modernity, this being a big theme of my forthcoming China book.
But for now, and the ever-cherished spirit of balance, after the jump a traveler's defense of the TSA, at least in the Rand Paul case.
A reader writes about his recent experience in a screening line at the San Francisco airport:
In response to yesterday's blog post containing a reader's and Senator Rand Paul's accounts of recent airport security experiences, I wanted to share my own. I flew out of SFO the other day, and the security checkpoint I went through (Terminal 1, Boarding area C) was shunting all passengers through millimeter wave devices - the first time I've seen them used on all passengers at a checkpoint, and not just a sample.
When my turn came and I opted out, my friendly male opt-out screener approached me with a clipboard and asked me why I was opting out. "Do I have to tell you?" I said. "No, but the TSA is collecting that information to help improve the screening process," he replied, pleasantly. "I don't trust the TSA to properly calibrate and maintain the machines, and I find the hands-up position debasing," I said. He thought a moment and checked a box on his clipboard marked "Other." We proceeded with the pat-down, which he conducted with all courtesy and professional comportment.
I'm very curious as to whether you or your readers are also being asked their reasons for opting out, not as a provocation by screeners with bad attitudes, but in a systematic way. And I'm dying to know what the other boxes on that form say!
My boyfriend was on the same flight, and also opted out of the millimeter wave machine. He had to wait a few minutes for his pat-down, in a cordoned-off area about a yard square right next to the x-ray machine. He asked if he could wait somewhere else, since he was exposed there to too much ionizing radiation for comfort. Instead of remarking on the irony, the screener just said "no," but when he kept pressing his case, some other TSA employee, perhaps a manager, let him go stand somewhere a bit further from the machine. Sitting, however, was strictly forbidden.
A final thought: as I was listening to Senator Paul's comments, I was taken aback that he would prefer the invasion and indignity of going through a full-body scanner multiple times to the invasion and indignity of being groped by an agent of the state. I prefer the latter because the indignity is the same in principle, but slightly safer and delivered by a human being who can look me in the eye. Then I realized how inured I'd become to such indignity. And that is why I hate the TSA: it is insidious in its constant escalation of human debasement.
I had the same surprise about Rand Paul's decision: I will happily go through a metal-detector all day long, but I prefer the pat-down to the body-screening machine for reasons like those the reader mentions and others. On the other hand, good for the TSA if it is inquiring into travelers' attitudes. More on this front to come.
Update From another reader who was surveyed after opting-out:
I flew through SFO in early December. I do the opt-out-as-protest-vote when I have the time, and got surveyed with the clipboard. I answered something like, "I am not convinced TSA management has had the devices sufficiently independently vetted, and disagree with the rollout procedure". TSA agent paused for a moment to process, and said "I'll mark 'refused'".
While I couldn't see what the other options were, this and "Other" make it sound like it's just garden-variety process statistics; the sort of data you gather to make sure the machinery runs well, not some sort of covert opinion polling.