As You Get Ready for Airport Security Today

Anyone using the airlines for Thanksgiving weekend return travel today ... good luck! And a few bits of airline-security lore for your guidance and amusement.

1) Turkey-day scenes from Turkey. This from a reader who says that he is generally tolerant of American TSA procedures:

I [am] someone who sort-of likes the whole security theater thing, but Turkey took security theater a step too far for me.  I've attached a photo at ASR (Kayseri), looking from the check-in area to the outside.  In order to get to check in, everyone has to go through a first layer of security, including checked bags.  Of course, we have to go through security again to get to the gate.  This added layer of security also occurred at Istanbul, so I assume it's a country-wide effort to ensure that if a crazy person shoots people in line, those people are waiting to get into the airport and not at in line at the check-in counter or at the interior security line.

security.jpg

That's the scene for getting into the airport. In many big cities in China, you have to walk through a line of police or soldiers who give a cursory glance at what you're bringing into the terminal and sometimes ask people to open their bags. But I've never seen this kind of security-line before the "real" security line. Logically, there's no reason why the U.S. shouldn't ultimately apply the same approach, since (as Jeffrey Goldberg has pointed out many times) the easiest way to do great damage to the air-travel system would be to mount an attack on people jammed up in lines inside the terminal. The logic, of course, is the screening-line premise that every traveler should be considered a potential terrorist. The TSA Administrator, John Pistole, says he wants to move away from that premise -- and we'll get into all the ramifications thereof, plus the increasing intolerability of air travel (for instance as addressed by Ta-Nehisi Coates), anon.

2) More on 'Every Traveler A Suspect', at the start of the Thanksgiving travel rush, from a reader in the tech industry:

I'm at the Salt Lake City airport, and it probably won't come as a surprise to you that at least one TSA agent here thinks that sarcasm is just part of the job. I opted out of the new scanner--having looked it up now, it appears to have been a millimeter wave model--and was escorted over to the side after two agents gathered up all of my stuff.

"Have you been through this procedure before?" the agent asked.
"Yes," I answered.
"Just have to keep coming back for more?" he asked, somewhat to my surprise.
"You don't give me a choice," I said.
"Sure we do. You have a choice," he replied. "Scanner...or pat down!"
"I would have preferred to just go through the metal detector," I said. He paused.
"That's not a choice."
"I went through the metal detector on my way to Salt Lake City," I said. No answer.

After he competed the pat down, he continued.

"So what about the scanner is it that you have a problem with?" he asked
"Ionizing radiation," I said.
"There is no ionizing radiation!" he said, referring to his particular scanner.
"That's not true," I replied, not knowing which kind it was, since it's not posted anywhere on the scanner (and even if it was, I'd still opt out of anything beyond a metal detector). Also, the TSA's official phrases "whole body imager" and "21st century technology" say nothing about the use of ionizing radiation, x-rays, or terahertz waves; see http://blog.tsa.gov/2008/04/safety-privacy-concerns-regarding.html.
"What would you call ultrasound?" he asked.
"I have no idea what model or type of scanner that is," I replied. He proceeded to lecture me in a mocking tone as though I were an idiot.
"There's only two types: two flat boxes, that's backscatter x-ray. Round, that's millimeter wave. Flat boxes, x-ray. Round, millimeter wave. I don't blame you for not wanting to go near the backscatter, but this one's fine."
"Well, I've had six CT scans, so I really don't need any more radiation of any kind." (I'm aware of course that many things including visible light are part of the EMR spectrum, but I wasn't about to get into a debate over physics with the agent.)
"CT scans...those are local."
"Not necessarily," I replied. "And I've had two head, two chest, and two abdominal."
"Well, you could just do it to spread it all out." he said. He then ran my chap-stick through the X-ray scanner, and finally walked away, leaving me to think...what the hell?

So, it's clearly not the worst TSA story ever, but I think it highlights three points (which are nothing new to you):
A) the totally arbitrary nature of the scanner selection process;
B) that passengers' decisions to opt out should never be questioned as it's none of the TSA's business why I have a problem with the scanner, even though in this case I had no problem sharing why; and
C) that passengers' decisions to opt out should absolutely never be ridiculed, or even remarked upon in a manner that could be interpreted as ridicule.

Another thought that came to mind is that had I refused to answer the agent's question, depending on how obnoxious he was feeling, he could have said that I was refusing to cooperate. So either you disclose personal medical information to the government, or you're not cooperating. What a deal.

My recent TSA experiences have been like this reader's. I've generally been in lines that included both (plain old) metal detectors, and new body-scanning machines. I always drift over toward the metal detectors. The past six or seven times I have been waved at the last minute toward the scanner. I've learned not to ask "why?" or "can't I just go through the metal detector [like the previous 50 people in line]?" I just say, "opt-out," and stand there for the frisking.

Which brings me to:

3) Know before you go. A new, improved version of the TSA Status is up and online. This is very definitely a non-official, crowd-sourced central tally of what kinds of machines are in use in what security lanes in what airports. Check it out, and contribute your own reports. Happy traveling!

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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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