Living Like Moles: TSA, NYC, SCOTUS, and Marmalade Update

By James Fallows

In response to this item yesterday, about how Manhattan would look if we handed over Times Square security to the TSA, recurring themes from readers have been:

1) Compare and contrast with British reaction. A reader writes:

In the spring of 1979 my husband was spending sabbatical terms in Oxford. Unfortunately that was a year when the IRA were especially active, bombing their way from where the ferry from Ireland landed, all the way across England to London, with Oxford square in the middle. We learned fairly promptly that our bags would be somewhat cursorily searched at the library and museums, and we were advised to not take the seats closest to the windows in restaurants fronting the road--or at least to face the other way if the glass windows had not been taped. Such minor inconvenience and all-too-frequent footage of carnage nightly on the telly were the only grim reminders of the hostilities. Life went on.

For our son's birthday in May we had promised him a trip into London, but for the week ahead the IRA had been loudly threatening that they would strike at the very heart of London on May 6. Apprehensive, I telephoned the War Office from which I had secured tickets for a tour of the once-secret underground World War II headquarters, an office situated right by the Parliament buildings. Given the threat level, ought we postpone our trip I asked.

"Madam, come ahead," a sonorous voice replied. "I assure you that will be the safest place in all England on that day."

We went as planned and had a fine and meaningful time: the very austerity of the warren of underground passages called simply "War Office" only heightened the lesson in fortitude and grit, Brit style. Carry on.

Brit stoicism, like the nothing-can-faze-me brassiness of many New Yorkers, can be over-romanticized. But at the moment we could use more rather than less of this sangfroid.

2) Lamentable timing for deplorable Court decision: Many, many people wrote to say how distressed they were (along with Justices Breyer and Ginsburg) that the Supreme Court has decided as of today to join the bunkerization of official Washington and forbid members of the public to walk up the magnificent steps in front of the building and enter through its main doors. Instead, they'll have to go in through a "secure" entrance below. If you've never seen the building or walked up those steps you may not feel viscerally what a powerful symbol this open approach has been. When walking up toward the Court's main doors, it really was hard not to think that this was a symbol of the openness of the law to all comers. It was a more important version of the ability to walk right up to Abraham Lincoln's statute at the Lincoln Memorial and turn and look down the Mall from his vantage point. (Last time I was in DC, as of a week ago, that was still allowed.)

Thumbnail image for LincolnMemorial1.jpg


Don't try this at the Supreme Court.












The Breyer-Ginsburg statement, which of course we have to call a "dissent," pointed out the destructive symbolism; and the reflection of America's public 'fraidy-cat mentality (no other nation's highest court has done this, they said); and the pure security-theater nature of the exercise. Keeping people off the main steps will make a serious security difference? Ugh. This is TSA-think as applied to one of our genuine national treasures.
UPDATE: Brilliant WaPo essay by Philip Kennicott on the political and visual symbolism of this decision. Please read the whole thing, of which this is a representative sample (emphasis added):

By a thousand reflexive cuts, architecture loses its power to mean anything. The loss to the citizens of the United States is enormous. We are becoming a nation of moles, timorous creatures who scurry through side and subterranean entrances. Soon, we will lose our basic architectural literacy. The emotional experience of entering a grand space has been reduced to a single feeling: impatience in the august presence of the magnetometer.

3) More on NYC and "resenting our freedoms." A reader writes:

The overreaction to apparent terrorist threats and action is something I had gotten used to seeing since 9/11.  That New York might be responding more rationally to this latest incident indicates progress.  What appalled me today though was hearing on the radio Mayor Bloomberg trotting out that old standard from the Bush Administration that these terrorists "resent our freedoms".   It's hard to image how he could really believe this.  Or maybe it has become the mindless comment that politicians feel they must include much like, as you frequently point out, "God Bless America" in standard American political speeches.

4) The TSA and the Marmalade "Gel" Menace. Below and after the jump, my friend Bruce Williams describes his latest security-theater encounter with TSA rules. Here's my point in passing along stories like this: if security measures are ridiculous, eventually they bring  ridicule to the entire security effort. In the long run, marmalade seizures, Supreme Court stair-closures, and "security level is 'orange'" foolishness "help the terrorists win," because they erode the legitimacy of real security efforts. I could belabor the point (eg, no one who passes through an airport in Israel would dream of making fun of their security efforts, because they're 100% serious) but instead I'll just turn the microphone over to Williams:

I flew back from London on Monday. The international segment was Heathrow to Denver on UAL. At Heathrow, I bought a jar of marmalade at the Harrods shop inside Terminal 1; it, like many other stores in the Terminal one shopping mall, is in the post-security area. I didn't think twice about stuffing it into my roller bag. It flew across the pond in the overhead bin above me. I passed through immigration and customs at Denver without difficulties--I even noted the jam on my customs form.
As is standard procedure at most US airports, transferring passengers must go through TSA security after they clear customs and immigration--even though they've already passed inspection before flying into the US. So I didn't think twice about the jar of Harrod's orange marmalade in my bag. But the sharp-eyed guy manning the X-ray machine spotted it, and I was pulled aside for a personal inspection. The TSA officer was nice ("Happens all the time," he said), but he unwrapped the jar from its green Harrods bag and told me I couldn't carry the jar of "gel" on the airplane, receipt and shrink-wrap seal notwithstanding.

Not wanting to disappoint a friend who loves the authentic stuff, I dashed upstairs to check my bag and its contraband and then had to go back through security again.

Of course, if I'd been on a nonstop flight from London to Seattle--or outbound from Seattle--carrying a jar of jam (or any number of other liquids and gels sold inside airport duty-free shops) wouldn't have been a problem. Only TSA could come up with and enforce such a rule.

You know what I "resent" about our freedoms? I resent the loss of them, through small-minded and smaller-hearted "security state" thinking, and the distortion of what it means to be an American. It should mean someone who takes things in stride, recognizes that life has ups and downs, and follows rules because the rules are reasonable and deserve respect. Thanks largely to security theater, Americans are coming to be people who scurry and worry, and follow rules no matter how obviously inane because they keep us "safe."

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/05/living-like-moles-tsa-nyc-scotus-and-marmalade-update/56106/