The Teva Menace Goes On: Now, It's Robeez!

This discussion of "security theater" started with a father exasperated that his four-year-old twin girls had to take off their little sandals before going through the TSA screening machine, and continued with some similar complaints -- but also arguments that the only thing worse than applying rules inflexibly would be forcing individual TSA agents to make split-second judgment calls all day long.

Now, further ammo on both sides. A mother writes:

After reading your story about the girls taking off their Tevas, I just have to go one better, and tell you that several years ago, when my son was an infant (i.e., not even able to walk), I tried to carry him through a metal detector at an airport wearing Robeez - those little soft, flexible shoes that you put on babies because they are cute, and are easier to keep on than socks. (Below)

2491L_2.jpgAs we were going through the line, the TSA guys kept repeating - take off your shoes, take off your shoes.  As I stood there waiting for them to usher me through the metal detector, shoeless, and with my son on my hip, the guy said something like "shoes go on the belt" - pointing at my son.  It took me a second to realize what he meant, but of course, I dutifully took off the "shoes" and put them on the belt.  Team America: 1.  Terrorist babies: 0. 

A few years later, I was flying again - my son was now 2.5 or 3, able to walk through himself, and he kept setting off the metal detector.  Instead of letting me talk to him about it, and look in his pockets, one of the TSA staff just kept telling him to walk through again and again, with my son getting more confused and scared with every order.   After a few tries, he just grabbed my son's hand and pulled him away from me to frisk him.  My son was genuinely terrified, and kept screaming  "Mommy!" as the guy pulled him away, with me following, but not daring to touch my son or tell the guy to stop for fear of what would happen to one or both of us.  

How insane is it that when the government provides subsidies for poor people to buy health insurance, we call it Big Brother, but frisking a toddler somehow counts as a national security imperative?

From the other extreme of apparent menace in footware -- not baby socklets but combat boots -- this report from a military doctor:

To add to the theater of the absurd that is the TSA, I discovered when traveling to and from Iraq recently in my Army uniform that military personnel do not have to remove their boots when going through airport security.  I don't know anything about bomb making, but I am willing to bet that a pair of boots on an adult are far better than Tevas on a child for that purpose.  In more security theater, one of my stops en route to Iraq was Ft. Hood, where I mobilized through the same SRP site as the tragic November massacre.  There is, of course, now security at the the SRP site, but no security at other facilities on the post with more regular, high density concentrations of troops, such as dining facilities.  It seems that in the wake of the Ft. Hood massacre, military personnel should be subjected to the same "security" measures as pre-schoolers.

And from another doctor:

A few years ago I was at the San Jose (CA) Airport and watched a man with one leg in a cast and on aluminum crutches go through security. The TSA official placed the crutches on the belt to be x-rayed while the man had to hop on his good leg through security.  Besides the absurdity it sure looked like an accident waiting to happen.

After the jump, arguments on the other side: that the only defense is keeping strictly to the rules.

An American reader now living outside the country writes:

I would think a primary reason to cram TSA screeners full of inflexible rules and remove any opportunity for personal judgment or initiative would be to preempt accusations of racial/ethnic profiling. "No Mr. Hamid, Mr. Worthington couldn't possibly have been picking on you because of your religion because he just doesn't have that much freedom of action.

And another:

I'm 60 years old and look it.  I went to the ball park in Atlanta recently and bought a beer; the vendor asked to see some ID and the carefully scrutinized it.  I went back later for another beer to the same vendor.  He carded me again and looked carefully again at my photo ID.  It was not necessary for anyone to confirm that I was over 21 by looking at a driver's license, but that's the ritual for getting a beer.  There's a ritual to going through airport security as well.  There's a higher probability that the sandals of a four-year-old girl are a problem than the probability that I'm drinking underage.  It's a mistake to get upset when people are doing their jobs.  When someone does his job right, he gets to keep his job. 

One more:

I largely agree with you on TSA issues.  In particular, I agree that the occurence of the Richard Reid incident is not sufficient cause for every traveler everywhere to remove his or her shoes for x-ray inspection. (Note that no one has advocated a similar procedure in the wake of the underwear bomber.)

Nevertheless, I write to make a point for those who take the opposite position (since it appears from your blog that they're not very good at defending themselves).  So here goes: 

If you view the TSA checkpoints as a vital security measure to keep explosives off planes, and you view the soles of shoes as a potential compartment for the conveyance of a dangerous amount of explosives (as I've said, I don't), then of course you need to x-ray the Tevas of four year olds.  This is not the same thing as accusing the four year olds in question of hatching a terrorist plot.  It is merely to say that the real terrorist, by whatever artifice, may have absconded with the Tevas in question, packed their soles full of deadly explosives, and replaced them while the children in question were none the wiser -- all in order to leverage the very argument from innocent appearance that you have been advancing and pick the otherwise impenetrable lock that is the TSA checkpoint.  Then it would be a relatively simple matter for the real terrorist to board the same plane (having no contraband on his person), retrieve the explosives from the sandals of the children, and wreak his awful havoc.

It seems perfectly ridiculous to me too, but I think, given the absurd premises of the TSA, their conduct was totally logical.

Eventually more to come, with a "what it all means" recommendation for TSA!

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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.

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