The TSA: bringing us ever closer to China!

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One of the predictably nutty aspects of life in China was the tyranny of objectively unimportant details of ID records. To mention only experiences I had first-hand:

I once had to buy a whole new airline ticket for a Beijing-Shanghai flight, and tear up my existing one, because the airline ticket agent had hand-written my first name on the ticket as "Jame," which didn't match my passport name. Similarly: the English-language on-line ticketing system for the Beijing Olympics had spaces for entering your first name and family name -- but no space for a middle name. (The Chinese version had spaces for the three characters in most Chinese names.) So when I went to the Bank of China to pick up the tickets I'd ordered and paid for, I showed my passport for identification -- and settled in for hours of argument, since my passport showed that I was James M. Fallows and the tickets were for James Fallows. How could this be the same person?

Thus it was with with a sense of deja vu and doom that I heard this summer about the TSA's new "Secure Flight" system, designed to match the Chinese government's pettifoggery about ID cards. (And in China, it is a more defensible bias. They have many more people, and many fewer available names, so their hairsplitting about naming details comes closer to making sense.) Well done yet again, TSA! If you were going to learn something from the Chinese security system, how about their "of course you can keep your shoes on" screening policy at airports?

Just now in the email, I find that this insistence on form rather than common sense ("the appearance of security is security") is leaking over to some of the private sector too. Thus, a similar "Secure Drive" message from a car rental company.

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Grrr. I childishly express my resistance by signing in as "Jabba the Hutt," "Charles Manson," "Kim Jong-il" etc when made to sign my name on "security" registers -- really, "security theater" registers -- at office buildings. I'm waiting for the time some dozing security official calls me back and says, "Wait a minute, Mr. Hutt, why isn't your middle name capitalized?"

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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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