The TSA and Me: Allies at Last

In the endless quest for balanced coverage on all topics, two better-news items about the TSA and the effort to distinguish "security" from "security theater."

1) "Recognizing a problem is half the battle" department. From an interview yesterday in the Atlantaic [oops - muscle-memory typo] Journal-Constitution with John Pistole, the new head of TSA. Pistole says:

"I see my job and really TSA's job as one of really managing risk. So my goal is to ensure that we provide the best possible security for the traveling public but doing it in a way that provides greater scrutiny to those that need greater scrutiny, and so we don't use a cookie cutter approach for everybody. Right now we use somewhat of a blunt instrument to screen virtually everybody the same way. And my goal is to use intelligence in a more informed fashion so we can apply greater scrutiny to those who need it and keep up with throughput in that fashion. [Emphasis added.]

2) "Not even the mighty Chinese have figured this out perfectly" department. Andrew Galbraith, editor of the China Economic Review in Shanghai, writes in with his report:

>>A note on the growing ridiculousness of security theatre - and a reminder it's not just the TSA!

I have an artificial leg, which always sets off the metal detectors - I always alert the security personnel, and in most places, a few swipes of the wand and a pat down is considered enough. I've found it useful occasionally to hitch up my pant leg as an additional illustration. In China, going back approximately to the Olympics, security personnel usually ask me to go to a separate screening room. Apparently, hitching up my pant leg there is "more convenient."

Flying out of Pudong Airport Terminal 1 to Thailand a few weeks ago, I was asked to go the screening room, as usual - but then was told I would have to take my leg off for a safety check. I refused. I was told that this was the rule, and that I would not be allowed to board the plane if I did not comply. I replied that I was happy to comply with a standard security check, but that I would not take my leg off - and that in six years of flying in China, I had never encountered such a rule. Their response was something along the lines of "从很早就有这个规定".* I'll admit that after a few minutes of such bureaucratic stonewalling, I lost my temper - but in the end, I nevertheless had to sit in the room for several minutes, legless, while they carried my prosthesis and passport away "为了你的安全."*

For all the annoyances I've had at North American airports, I had never encountered a security check as demeaning as the one at Pudong. That must count in the TSA's favour, somehow!<<

*[ According-to-me rough translations: "No, it's always been this way" for the first, and "for your own safety" for the second.]

After the jump, a reminder of why Mr. Pistole is right in identifying a "cookie cutter approach" as a sensible next target for reform.

A reader in South Carolina writes:

Not long after 9-11, when they were still figuring out what security theater should look like, I was standing in PDX [Portland, OR], at the end of a long line. The guy in front of me was a very classic looking Delta pilot (obviously ex-military and so forth). We chatted about all this stuff going on around us, but I kept coming back to what seemed obviously ridiculous: "Why are you in this line?" He wasn't clear, but was very good natured about the whole thing (back then everybody was much more understanding).

Once we got to the metal detector, and most everything he owned has been sent down the conveyor belt, he slowly walked through the arch like everybody else. You can guess what happened.


At that time, when someone set off the alarm, that brought everybody else in line to a screeching halt. So I now have a front row seat to the security folks asking the Captain questions (".... maybe it's your belt buckle?..."), but the crowd in the long line can see this as well, and they were starting to get vocal.

But what was so funny was the pilot's humor as he interacted with what became three security people trying to decipher whether the alarm was set off by his belt buckle, his tie clip, or his watch. (Of course in addition to being in uniform, he's got all these badges and IDs hanging around his neck)

Very soft spoken, respectfully, but with a hint of a smile: "Do you understand that I'm the one flying the plane?.... I will be the one in control of the plane..... "

This literally went on for 10 minutes until someone higher up the foodchain came along and put a stop to it.

That was long ago, but as the "Revolt of Michael Roberts" indicated, the mentality behind it still prevails. I am delighted that Administrator Pistole's comments allow me to switch my own strategic position. No longer am I a carping critic of the TSA. Now I can be an enthusiastic backer of the goal its own administrator has set forward! Onward, together, we will prevail.

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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.

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.


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