The theater of "security," part 1037

United Air Lines, San Francisco-Dulles, oversold plane, passengers fighting to avoid being bumped. My wife and I luckily end up with really nice seats. In keeping with our larger attitude these first few days back from China, we are actively grateful for every comfort.

While waiting for the flight we end up sitting in the area where all the flight attendants are congregating and chatting about their schedules. From this vantage point, 30 minutes before boarding time, we see two people who are obviously this flight's air marshals walk down the jetway toward the plane. To ensure the safety of the traveling public, I won't give further details, except to say:

apparently marshals aren't required to wear coats and ties any more; and, no one who saw them board -- ahead of everyone else, straight to first class -- would have the slightest doubt about their identity and mission.

I'd been swilling coffee before the flight and water during it, and three times in five hours I went to the bathroom in the front of the plane. The bathroom was roughly 18 inches from the cockpit door. Three times I passed the air marshals in first class. Three times they failed to raise their eyes toward me as I walked forward. Three times as I headed back they were too engrossed in other pursuits to spare me a look -- one with a GameBoy, one watching the movie. Later the GameBoy guy switched to a thriller novel.

On its own, this was perfectly rational behavior. I am a milquetoast-looking middle-aged guy-- though probably one of the few in the plane who secretly waits for the call over the PA system: "Our pilots have both passed out, is there any civilian pilot aboard who might heroically save the plane?" But I think that more was at work here than profiling based on my innocuous appearance -- or their quickly sizing me up and concluding, This guy could never bust down the fortified cockpit door.

The air marshals understand, as everyone else does, the kabuki of most modern security rituals. They act as if they're making us safer; we act as if we believe them. Before we got on the plane, the woman ahead of me in the security line at SFO was crying angry tears because she had to throw away a tube of face cream that in some way violated the current rules against on-board liquids, gels, and unguents. "Eighty-five dollars!" she kept wailing. In its way this too was part of the theater of being safe.

There were ten first-class seats aboard this (again, oversold) United flight. Two of them were occupied by the air marshals. Either the taxpayers are subsidizing United for these premium seats, or United is eating the loss. Either way the question arises, as with the face cream: how exactly does this make sense? On the other hand, maybe the return of on-board cultery lets us hope that rational risk-assessment might someday regain lost ground.

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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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