One Pilot's Revolt: Today's Security Theater Update

This episode has been widely discussed on line, but so many people have written to make sure I haven't overlooked it that, in a for-the-record spirit, I note it here.

Late last week Michael Roberts, a pilot for ExpressJet airlines, a regional carrier based in Houston, refused to go through the new "advanced imaging" (aka "full-body scan") security device at the Memphis International Airport, en route to work. His first-person account, on an ExpressJet online forum, is here. A followup yesterday in the Memphis Commercial Appeal is here. (Advanced imaging screener, below, from official TSA photo:)


Roberts's original account is long and, by his own admission, has a tone of righteous outrage. For instance, here's his description of the play-by-play after he declined to go through the new machine or have a full-frisk manual search. A TSA official tells him he is asking for trouble and should know better than to make a fuss.

>>"Really? What do you mean I 'should know better'? Are you scolding me? Have I done something wrong?"

"I'm not saying you've done something wrong. But you have to go through security screening if you want to enter the facility."

"Understood. I've been going through security screening right here in this line for five years and never blown up an airplane, broken any laws, made any threats, or had a government agent call my boss in Houston. And you guys have never tried to touch me or see me naked that whole time. But, if that's what it's come to now, I don't want to enter the facility that badly."

Finishing up, he asked me to confirm that I had been offered secondary screening as an alternative "option" to [the body-scan machine], and that I had refused it. I confirmed. Then he asked whether I'd "had words" with any of the agents. I asked what he meant by that and he said he wanted to know whether there had been "any exchange of words." I told him that yes, we spoke. He then turned to the crowd of officers and asked whether I had been abusive toward any of them when they wanted to create images of my naked body and touch me in an unwelcome manner. I didn't hear what they said in reply, but he returned and finally told me I was free to leave the airport. [italics in original]<<

The hundreds of comments that follow Roberts's post suggest that the inflexible rules of "security theater" have touched a popular nerve. As discussed earlier, of course any large-scale security agency needs a standard set of rules, both for the appearance of "fairness" and to avoid the need for thousands of judgment calls per day by harried security agents.

The challenge for the TSA, as the years wear on, is to balance one desirable image for its rules -- that they are fair and impartially imposed  -- with another, that they make sense. Extra-tough inspections for pilots highlight the tension between those goals. Yes, it's "fair" to have pilots go through the body-scan machine with everyone else. On the other hand: an hour from now, they're going to be sitting at the controls -- whether or not they brought more than three ounces of liquid/gel along with them. As one commenter on the ExpressJet forum asks, "What, exactly, does a pilot need to take down an airplane?"  Answer, of course: himself (and, if he's acting alone, perhaps a knockout punch to the other person in the cockpit).  No big conclusion to suggest at this point, but Roberts's testimony represents another step in the "security theater" debate.

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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. More

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.

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