Post-9/11 Airport Security: Do You Know Where Your Dignity Is?

Eric Weiner: On the intersection of place, politics and culture

09.11.09 | 10:20 AM ET

Airport screeners check traveler’s temperature in Hong Kong (REUTERS/Vincent Yu/Pool)

For those not fighting the war in Afghanistan or working for the CIA—in other words, the vast majority of us—there’s only one place where we are regularly reminded that our nation was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001: the airport. Shoes and belts off. Laptops out. Hands up. We’ve become so accustomed to this silly ritual that we no longer protest. We willingly, gladly, submit. 

Standing in an especially long security queue at O’Hare recently, I was struck by just how pliant everyone was. The line was inching along, painfully slowly, yet nobody grumbled or complained. Had I stumbled upon a group of Zen travelers? I don’t think so. Somehow, we’ve come to equate the cheerful removal of articles of clothing in front of complete strangers with safety and even civic duty. Perhaps that’s because, for most of us, it’s the only sacrifice we’ll ever make in the conflict formerly known as the War on Terrorism.

Much has been written about whether all of these security measures make us any safer. The fairly unanimous conclusion is that they don’t. The confiscation of nail clippers and lighters and jars of peanut butter are designed to catch stupid terrorists while making us all feel a bit safer. The TSA is fighting the last war and, apparently, not even doing that very well. Jeffrey Goldberg, a correspondent for The Atlantic, recently smuggled all sorts of banned items on board several flights. Goldberg concluded that the TSA is engaged in “security theater.” (And not very good theater at that, judging by the reviews.)

But this column is really about the cumulative emotional impact of all that scanning and screening and frisking and puffing. What is it doing to our travelers’ souls?

Nothing good, I suspect. No matter how glorious the destination, every flight we take is preceded by an organized, state-sanctioned mugging. We board planes with our pants disheveled, our shoes untied and, quite possibly, our laptops missing. I don’t know about you, but I feel vaguely guilty going through the metal detector or, worse, the new-fangled air-puffers. Some part of me worries that perhaps, in a fit of absent-mindedness, I did pack a few pounds of Semtex that morning. I find myself avoiding eye contact with the TSA employees, fearing they will sense my guilt and call in the dogs. Yes, at the airport, we’re all presumed guilty until the metal detector indicates otherwise.

There are the increasingly frequent friskings. These make me even more uncomfortable. I try to hold perfectly still, not moving a muscle, or any other body part, silently praying that TSA training includes a crash course in basic anatomy.

A friend of mine—we’ll call her Anita—recently told me a story that neatly sums up all that is wrong with airport security. She was boarding a flight in Tel Aviv, heading for New York. Anita’s profile—single woman traveling alone, Indian passport—triggered a more thorough screening. The El Al security agent asked her to remove every one of the items in her carry-on bag and place them on a table, all the while peppering her with a series of increasingly invasive questions. Anita cooperated but wasn’t happy with the way she was being treated. “Can’t we do this with some dignity?” she pleaded with the security agent, scrambling to repack her bag. “Dignity is dignity,” sneered the agent. “And security is security.”

When I first heard the story, I was outraged. Why can’t we have security and dignity, I thought? But now I’ve come to realize that maybe the Israeli agent was right. Security, by its very nature, robs us of dignity. Or, as Patrick Smith, an airline pilot, put it recently in Salon: “We have grown so accustomed to having our patience tested and our dignity eviscerated that we’re quicker at assuming the position. I’m sorry, but this isn’t a sign of progress, it’s a sign of cowardice and capitulation.”

He’s right. In a cruel twist of post-9/11 irony, we’ve become like those Al-Qaeda detainees subjected to hours of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” We will say anything, do anything, in order to stop the pain. “Did you pack your own bags?” Yes. (I would like to once, just once, answer “no” to that question and see what happens.) “I’ll need to search your bag again, sir.” Go right ahead. “Could you please bend over a bit further, sir?” Why certainly.

Maybe there is no alternative. Maybe this is the price we pay for the freedom to travel. Or maybe this was all part of bin Laden’s devious plan—to inflict not only one day of spectacular violence but also a lifetime of quiet indignity.

27 Comments for Post-9/11 Airport Security: Do You Know Where Your Dignity Is?

Sabina 09.11.09 | 10:46 AM ET

Maybe Obama will at some point do away with the TSA guys and gals that we encounter before boarding, as they have proven to be pretty useless and, of course, most of the real identification of terrorists doesn’t take place at the airport anyway. 

Also, Israeli airport security has to be more stringent than ours since they’re far more likely to be victims of terrorists, as they have been for the past decades.  Obviously the Indian woman wasn’t a terrorist.  But I wonder how she might have been treated if she was pulled aside for a secondary scan in our own country.

Blue Man 09.12.09 | 2:52 AM ET

Well, this day was really should be called ultimate tragedy..Its a trageyd wherein lots of people from different races.Families carrying photos of lost loved ones streamed into a plaza near Ground Zero in New York on Friday to observe the eighth anniversary of the World Trade Center attack, many standing tearfully through moments of silence in honour of those who died.This really a tragic moment for all even other countries were given their pity condolences for the nation.It was the downfall or destruction of the World Trade Center and everybody buzzed that news!No other medicine for the left family of those who died even Blue Man cant cure the sadness they felt. It would be better to die from cancer, blue man can cure. But dying through an accident or this kind of rebellious way of quitting life is very rude.

Mary Arulanantham 09.12.09 | 4:16 PM ET

Every time we travel, my husband (a Sri Lankan Tamil native, but a U.S. citizen) gets the full treatment—belt off, bags opened, yada yada. Interestingly, on the way home from one of our trips to Sri Lanka, it was me, the lone white women, that got the detailed search: mini sewing kit (in the trash), tampons (what are these for?) family photos (who are these people?). I guess fair is fair. And yet I’ve carried on a full bottle of water that I inadvertently left in my bag from one flight to the next (Germany) and gotten away with other minor transgressions. Korea makes you march through one line after another, while Rome treats you to the sight of machine gun toting guards while the line slowly snakes through check-in. The only way to get through any kind of transit is to assume that zen quality and dream about what delights are in store when you finally get to your destination. Pass me the mantra, please.

Bob Berwyn 09.16.09 | 12:07 PM ET

Yes, dignity and total security seem to be mutually exclusive, it’s the nature of totalitarianism. Some of the things I’ve seen — 90-year-olds with walkers and oxygen tanks on their back being subjected to a full screening — seem completely detached from any meaningful security measures.

So, as a next step, How do we improve security while maintaining dignity? We all know what the problems are by now, they’ve been written about ad nauseum.

What are the solutions? There must be some smart travel and security experts out there who have thought about this and come up with some answers. As travelers and writers, let’s develop a specific agenda for improvements and then advocate for change at the political level.

grizzly bear mom 09.17.09 | 12:04 PM ET

It appears to me that experts did study the problems and implemented the answer complained of above.  Italy has had machine gunned guards at their airports since 1980.  I pass armed police in DC’s Union Station daily.  As for searching those who appear like they may be terroists, it only makes sense.  If I am ever raped I hope they look for men.  As for screening 90 year olds with walkers and oxygen, if I were a terrosit I would disguise myself as one.  I am just back from London.  It was a pain getting into England-an hours wait.  It only took ten minutes to get back in, and the screeners in NJ (not known for our graciousness) were respectful.  Maybe because I am a citzen here.  As the terrosim threat increases soon we will have to disrobe and wear paper Dr’s gowns and travel without luggage for security purposes.

Khan 09.21.09 | 12:15 PM ET

i`ll not say anything , except Thank You to CNN for pointing out this article and This sentence could be sentence of 21 century .

“Can’t we do this with some dignity?” she pleaded with the security agent, scrambling to repack her bag. “Dignity is dignity,” sneered the agent. “And security is security.”

Dave Clark 09.21.09 | 12:38 PM ET

The plain fact is we loyal citizens are not one Whit safer.  TSA has NEVER caught a “terrorist,” ever.  The Brits caught a few, and some United Airlines flight attendants stopped the shoe-bomber in flight, but TSA is a giant, expensive multi-$$$Billion annual failure.

Maybe if we all printed out the article and handed it to those TSA agents the next time through the security line, the word might get to someone.  However, the last time I complained to the agent, they retaliated by doing the heavy search of my entire briefcase. 

Dave Clark

S Lee 09.21.09 | 1:26 PM ET

Ok, so knives and meat cleavers are illegal.  Got it.

Guns and swords are bad.  I understand.

I got a bottle of Holy Water for a dying relative and tried to bring it on board a Southwest Air flight.  Nope.  Can’t do it.  The bottle was labeled for content and origin, so that was ok.  I bought the 2 oz size, so that was ok.  The problem?  The bottle was labeled for CONTENT but not for size…...I even had the receipt that said “2 oz bottle”.  But because the BOTTLE didn’t SAY it was 2 oz, the agent took it.

Nicely done.  Sleep well people, your shores are well defended.

David Carr 09.21.09 | 1:59 PM ET

I was bothered my Mary’s comment that “fair is fair” when asked about other people that appear in family photos.  It troubles me that we have come to this point.

I recently travelled through Boston and was ‘greeted’ with “How are we today” but one of the TSA agents as I walked into the security corral.  Perhaps I’m a bad person, but when I greet someone that way, I don’t really care how their day is going.  So, without response, I walked to another agent who was checking passports/ID and boarding passes, and continued on to the screening area.  While I was talking to the second agent, the first one again asked how “we” were doing, and I mistakenly assumed he was greeting someone else who had entered the line.

Apparently feeling snubbed by my lack of response, the greeting agent was on the other side of the metal detectors waiting for me.  I was physically searched twice (with no visible reaction on my face) and he cheerfully mentioned he would have to thoroughly search all my items and asked if I was in a hurry to catch a plane.  I simply replied, “Nope.” 

Not getting the reaction he was hoping for, the situation quickly changed.  He asked where I lived (twice) and I told him that the address on my driver’s license (in his hand) was correct.  He asked where I had been in Boston and I chose not to answer.  Eventually he was asking why I had a concealed weapons permit from Florida, to which I replied that I was not carrying a weapon.  The next two questions, where I worked and why I have health insurance through Mayo Clinic, prompted me to tell him he could either return my items to the wallet and clear me, or return them to my wallet and seek a search warrant from a judge, adding that he was well beyond the scope of his job duties.  He returned everything to my wallet, thanked me for my time, and cleared me, though a State Trooper was still holding my ID and talking to another TSA agent nearby.

When they were done talking, the State Trooper told me that he didn’t really like my attitude so he had decided I can’t fly and that I can try the following day.  I don’t quite understand why a police officer should get to decide whether a traveller is sociable enough or on what days he or she could fly, unless charging the traveller with a crime, but what can you do?  For what it’s worth, the Massachusetts State Police Internal Affairs division wasn’t real happy to hear about the Trooper’s decision either.

My point is that TSA seems to feel as though we’re not only obligated to ask any question (regardless of scope) that they ask, but apparently that we’re also obligated to appear happy and as though we’re participating because we want to be.  There’s no question that this TSA agent felt disrespected when he tried to make small talk with me, but I don’t exactly have to be buddies with them to travel, nor for them to effectively do their job.

David Carr 09.21.09 | 2:03 PM ET

In my last paragraph, it should read that TSA seems to feel as though we’re obligated to answer, not ask, any question they present to us.

Ravi D. Rampersad 09.21.09 | 4:01 PM ET

Eric Weiner you are idiot. Its people like you who give terrorist ideas and truly un American. If u had done a story like this in any other country do u honestly think u would still exist, no. You knock our nations security. Guarantee if were on a flight and it was hijacked you would be the first one to hide and cry like a baby and not make an attempt to do anything. I bet all my life savings when they say women and children first you would try and sneak out. Its people like you who dont serve in our milatary or help protect your country in anyway are the real threats and cowards.

Ravi D. Rampersad 09.21.09 | 4:05 PM ET

To S. Lee

If u believe a bottle of holy water was gonna work to save your dying relative, u are a bigger idiot than the store that sold it to you, God save us from idiots like you.

Ravi D. Rampersad 09.21.09 | 4:12 PM ET

To Mr Dave Clark

What have u you done to catch any terrorist or protect your country, absolutely nothing. Does anyone go to your job and tell you what a waste of time the work that u do. As i always say its people like you would be the first one to hide and cry when you are in the situation and not do anything about it, I bet a kid has more guts that you,  and will do something. So be a man and do something to protect your country and then write a real comment.

Ravi D. Rampersad 09.21.09 | 4:18 PM ET

To Mr. Carr

In any other country would u have been such an idiot wher they have heavliy armed security at ther airports. The answer is no.  You would of been scarred like a mouse trapped. Get a real job and help protect and defend your country. As always the whimps are given liberty to comment

Brad in Seattle 09.21.09 | 4:47 PM ET

To Ravi D. Rampersad:

You are a zombie.  People who ask questions and don’t bend over at request of strangers are the ones who are the real patriots - the ones really saving what America stands for.

“In any other country would u have been such an idiot wher they have heavliy armed security at ther airports. The answer is no.”

America isn’t like any other country.  Citizens have the right to question authority and stand up for privacy, decency and invasion of all the things the Bush Crime Family worked so hard to strip from us.  Dissent is patriotic.

Maybe you like being a zombie - I really don’t know.  But taking cracks at the normal people - the people who don’t like to be questioned, nude searched with the new light-x-ray machines, or have their personal possessions taken away by some flunky because of some arbitrary rule the TSA made up that week to allay the public panic - that shows how little understanding you have of what it means to be American. 

How long have we been at “security level orange” and when will be be able to go back to how we were before people like you gladly and blindly surrendered your freedom for the promise of safety?  That, my friend, is more cowardly than any of the lunacy you’ve spewed against others in the comments list here.  Shame on you, zombie.

David Carr 09.21.09 | 6:58 PM ET

To Mr. Ravi D. Rampersad:

Actually, you’re wrong.  I’ve had similar situations abroad where they have “heavliy [sic] armed security” and I was still cooperative only to the extent that was appropriate.

So, I guess your witty comment doesn’t really apply.  Sorry.  Better luck next time?

David Clark 09.21.09 | 7:14 PM ET

I’ve done plenty to protect my country, including serve 3 years in the US Army, two of which were in Korea.  I’ve also voted regularly, paid all my taxes, kept my eyes open at airports and on planes, and made known my opinions about harassing security by TSA.  I’ve served as a volunteer, unpaid mediator in the local California courts to help resolve legal disputes, and done other public service. 

Being a lawyer, my profession is not immune from public criticism—we are regularly called “shysters,” “blood-suckers,” “licensed thieves,” and other evil-doers.  I plan to continue to practice my profession despite such criticism. 

Dave Clark

Steve Hulland 09.21.09 | 9:35 PM ET

Ravi D. Rampersad,
I am sure that you do not understand freedom. Just read the Constitution of The United States of America and all of its Amendments. They speak very well for freedom. The TSA is an expensive affront to Freedom and a disgrace. The security checks that I have to dedure at a commercial airport is a disgrace to our nation. If you think it is OK, then you are aslo a disgrace and coward who thinks others should guarentee your freedom. Not!
I am a retired United States Marine, Fireman and currently manage an airport. I have publically spoken out againse the TSA and all of their stupid security measures “jokes”. What really bothers me is that the average person in this country has submitted to our very stupid security activity that involves checking out those who would travel on a commercial airline. It is nothing short of Hogwash and has gone a long way to destroy freedom - not protect us.
The answer to terroism and related things is to simply seek them out and kill them. Viloent and swift termination of all terroists and the groups that support them is what will guarentee freedom - not some silly “security check” by a TSA agent.
I knew about 100 young men, who will remain forever young, whoes names appear on the Viet Nam Memorial Wall - What would they think of our stupid reaction to a terroist event? I shudder at the thought. What to the many men and women who are risking their lives every day in Iraq or Afganistan or anywhere else think of all of this stupid recation. I talk to many of them and they all agree - the portion of TSA that does those stupid security checks is a waste of time, effort and a destroyer of freedom. If you cannot see that, shame on you!
Semper Fi,
Steven R. Hulland

Kevin McCue 09.21.09 | 11:02 PM ET

Our country is in dire straits. The sheeple are only too willing to give up their freedom for the illusion of security. While brave men and women die defending our constitution, our gov’t wastes no time in abridging it. The sad part is that those that died on 9/11 are being insulted by that loss.

Freedom has never been free, sometimes it takes blood. Its time to close the Department of Abridged Rights and give the country back to the citizenry.  I spent my time at the “pointy end of the spear,” let those so eager to give up freedom step up next.

Mary Arulanantham 09.22.09 | 5:12 PM ET

David Carr,
My use of “fair is fair” was meant to be ironic. If my husband has the irritation of constant checks here, I sarcastically guess I have to put up with it in his country of origin. Do I think that the overall treatment of travellers is really fair? Of course not. I usually travel with my children, and as much as I have the reputation at home for speaking up in the face of injustice (I was involved for many years in refugee work), I would prefer to keep my social travel as free of stress as possible, since there are a lot of people on both side of the globe waiting to see us. As to your experience in Boston—truly appalling, but I submit that there are sadistic jerks in many walks of life. I would support any reasonable efforts to battle these petty terrorists, but sadly, pragmatism usually wins out.

Mr. Rampersad,
What a sad misuse of this forum. Come back when you’ve taken lessons in persuasive writing, instead of immature name calling.

Sam Sticka 10.04.09 | 8:15 PM ET

I agree with Eric.  People these days are a bunch of scaredy cats.  “Get in line, be quiet, do what you’re told, or we’ll make life very hard for you.”  That’s the atmosphere the TSA has created.  Sadly, we’ve caught on.  We blindly obey their stupid rules without question.

Pre-9/11 security was just fine.  All these extra security measures just slow everything down and make flying more unpleasant.  They’ve only made us more obedient and complacent to government intrusions in our lives.  They do not punish terrorists, just average, non-threatening law-abiding citizens like me.  If anything, they’re a distraction from catching real terrorists.  While you’re hassling and inconveniencing innocent travelers by making them take off their shoes, coats, belts, remove their laptops from their cases, etc., a real terrorist could just slip right by you and you wouldn’t even know it.

What really ticks me off is not being able to say my goodbyes and hellos at the gate.  I don’t enjoy having to do all that at security or baggage claim.  I don’t care what’s done in other countries.  Visitors have as much right as passengers to be at the gates.

How much more are we going to take until we realize this is doing us no good?  How bad do things have to get before we finally do something?  When will we stand up and say enough?  If we continue being nice, good, obedient citizens, then we can kiss our country goodbye.

Dave Clark 10.04.09 | 8:57 PM ET

I’ve seen this recently circulated on the Internet:

I was at the airport, checking-in at the gate when a TSA employee asked, ‘Has anyone put anything in your baggage without your knowledge?’  To which I replied, ‘If it was without my knowledge, how would I know?’ He smiled knowingly and nodded,
  ‘That’s why we ask.’

This happened in Birmingham , Ala.

Sam Sticka 10.05.09 | 2:49 PM ET

Yeah, that doesn’t make any sense.  If it was without your knowledge, how would you know?

Francis Spranza 10.29.09 | 8:29 AM ET

As the Director of an Aviation Security Training Center, instructor and having more than 30 years field experience, I must agree with those professionals who, sadly state, there is a distinct lack of training when it comes to the area of “customer service”.  By this, I mean - interpersonal communication, conflict resolution and simple courtesy.  Though several institutions, agencies and companies offer this type of training for airline personnel - mostly undertaken by air operators for cabin and counter staff- security based agencies such as airport workers, screeners and most security/ law enforcement agencies simply ignore the need for proper human interaction.  Though it is true one must balance security - and accomplishing the mission - with a degree of traveler inconvenience, there are proper, civil and courteous ways to achieve communication and human interaction.

Coming out of the field of Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement, too often, individuals who undertake these careers are of such a Type A personality, mission oriented and of a tactical mindset, they fail to obtain the interpersonal skills necessary to professionally perform the tasks at hand.  This issue goes far beyond individual confrontations, and is rooted int he very design of selection and training methodologies.

To the rational individual, the solution would appear simple - enhanced interpersonal skill training.  However, in today’s world issues such as budget, funding, lack of supervisory and administrative understanding, along with simple neglect seem to take precedence.  The true fault here lay not with the rude officer, but with the system which created him/her.  It would appear a conscious effort must be made to address the issues of interpersonal skills with the unique aviation environment..

James L. Moore 11.08.09 | 7:20 PM ET

True story.

After having been singled out of a group for a special screening of my identification for the umpteenth time, I asked the counter agent as we were awaiting the higher up’s verdict about whether or not I would be allowed to board and he SAID, “I once worked behind the scenes determining who should be held up or further scrutinized and ALL you need to do to avoid it is buy your ticket with your MIDDLE name rather than your first name. . . (!)”

I asked if it could possibly be that simple, and he said emphatically, “Yes.”

So, instead of buying the ticket as James Moore, Lynne Moore.

Does that make any of you feel any safer that it is just that easy?

Sam Sticka 11.08.09 | 8:09 PM ET

No, James, it doesn’t make me feel safer.  I just see it as making us more obedient and complacent to government intrusions in our lives.

Francis Spranza 11.09.09 | 8:43 AM ET

As the leader of a team of specialists who travel often to present training to aviation security personnel, I can to some degree understand the frustration that all of us are subjected to at airport screening points.  In our case, one of our team members often works with high explosives in developing our training and Research and Development Department.  He, unlike I, is stopped, and strip searched nearly every flight.  Bells and whistles go off, people hustle and grope the poor man endlessly until the “situationo is explained, his belongings throughly searched and his dignity thoroughly stripped.  But, that is the nature of the beast as we say.  It is true that screening must be done - and only a few seem to understand that point - with a high degree of customer service in mind.  For my organization - and a a curriculum development specialist - I am careful to include in our Instructional Team a clinical psychologist whose specialty is Interpersonal Communication and Conflict Resolution.  Too often these areas are overlooked in the rush to train personnel to mechanically examine, search and restrain.
Until the industry recognizes the price of human dignity, unfortunately things will continue as they are.
On the other hand, having been attending several aircraft incident/accidents the result of one crazed individual is high cost in human lives.

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