Not so long ago I arrived at Dulles airport, outside Washington, after a very protracted journey from Russia, including a layover in Germany. Like most transatlantic voyagers, I was weary, only approximately awake, and felt vaguely unwashed. Standing for a long time in a long line to present my passport to customs officials, I observed that an unusual number of my fellow travelers appeared to be elderly—that is to say, older than myself—and I could only surmise that the rigors of modern air travel were especially taxing for them.
At that moment, a middle-aged gentleman in uniform, wearing sunglasses—I cannot now recall whether he was a policeman of some jurisdiction or a Transportation Safety Administration official—appeared in the no-man’s-land between the rope line and the customs desk. Like a drill sergeant, he strode back and forth with a purposeful air, and began to bellow.
“Listen up!” he said. “You will enter the proper line for passport control. U.S. passports here, non-U.S. passports there”—and he pointed to the appropriate queues. “You will have your passport available for immediate inspection. You will cooperate with the appropriate authorities. If you do not you will be subject to detention and possible arrest!”
These welcoming sentences were bellowed, as I say, and delivered as he marched up and down the forlorn line of exhausted travelers, hands on hips. I remember thinking at the time that the only ingredient missing from his kit was a swagger stick, and that the whole performance approached self-parody. Then I felt anger. My momentary inclination was to approach him, as he moved along the queue, and advise him that most of the waiting travelers were old, some were infirm, all were tired and sleepy, and it was hardly necessary to address them as if they were military recruits, or prisoners arriving at the state penitentiary. But imagining my own “detention and possible arrest,” I kept my mouth shut.
There seems to be a growing revolt among the traveling populace against the new TSA full-body scanners—which examine the naked figure for contraband—and the invasive “pat-downs” administered to those bold, or foolhardy, enough to decline the scanner. I am in full sympathy with people who are horrified by either prospect, and am intrigued by the extent to which discontent and civil disobedience is spreading across the landscape.
The problem, of course, is that travel security arrangements present a paradox. The overwhelming majority of travelers in American airports are not terrorists, and present nothing that should arouse official suspicion. But everyone agrees that security measures, in this day and age, are necessary—and perhaps, someday, a suicide bomber will be apprehended who is not a young Muslim male. Finding a happy medium in these precincts, balancing liberty with security, is never easy.
And yet I cannot help but wonder whether the problem is not public resistance to naked scanners, or a libertarian aversion to being frisked, but the cumulative effects of the TSA style of doing business. That uniformed goon at Dulles airport—“You will enter the proper line”—is the rule, not the exception. My own bigoted observation is that the people who administer airport security appear to be otherwise unemployable types who have suddenly been granted police powers; and like bad cops everywhere, they revel in it. Service is not with a smile but a glare; words of caution are not spoken but barked; the harried traveler, who wishes nothing more than to get the unfortunate encounter over with, is guilty until proven innocent.
It is difficult to say how this current security impasse will be resolved, or whether it can be resolved in any satisfactory way. But since TSA has the law and the weapons of coercion, and Americans are usually happy to ensure the public safety, a little more Mister Rogers and a little less R. Lee Ermey might help.