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.