Security Theater Revisited Redux (Redux Redux …)

If you’ve read this blog before, you know that I’m interested in (and amazed by) the security theater that pervades our airport experiences.  I’m in Washington, DC as I write this, ready to review proposals submitted to the Broadening Participation in Computing CFP.  That means I experienced our airports today.  And once again, experienced amazing theater.  I decided not to check any bags today, partially because US Airways charges for each checked bag.  Which makes no sense to me, but more about that in another post.  This means that I needed to pack all of my liquids in a quart bag in quantities of 3.4 ounces or less.  This rule is in place, of course, because some whacko tried to combine some liquids into an explosive at some point in the past.  That’s the same reason that I have to take my shoes off as I pass through security.  But again, that’s another story.  So I DID pack my liquids in quantities of 3 ounces or less.  One of my items, my toothpaste, was in a tube that I had purchased in England, a tube that looks different than US tubes of toothpaste but which, nonetheless, was 3 ounces, which, if you’re a math genius, you know is 0.4 ounces less than the requirement.  I had, after all, brought this tube from England in to the US with no problems.  But the guy at the security check point in Manchester decided that this tube was too big, that it contained more than the limit of 3.4 ounces.  So he stopped me at the check point and said that I would have to throw it away.  I protested and asked him to check the tube.  Oh, yes, he said, it is 3 ounces which is less than the maximum of 3.4 ounces.  Be on your way, he said.  And so I was.

Why do I complain about this incident?   Because clearly there is no logical reason for a 3.4 ounce limit on liquids.  My tube of toothpaste looked unusual to this guy’s eyes and so he flagged it.  But as soon as the weight was determined to be within the limit, as soon as I complained, he let it pass.  Either there’s something of concern with the tube or there isn’t.  The limit of 3.4 ounces is arbitrary and my unusual tube proved that.  Are we safer because this guy wanted to throw my tube out?  Are we safer because I protested and he double-checked and let it through?  No.  It’s about the appearance of security rather than actual security.  And that’s no security at all.

The other incident that concerned me about this trip was my neighbor on the flight from LaGuardia to Washington National who constantly checked his Blackberry throughout the time that all such electronic devices were supposed to be turned off.  Why did they need to be turned off?  And what was it that this middle-aged man couldn’t wait five minutes to check?  Each time the stewardess came through the cabin, he had it turned off.  But he looked at his messages on this device over and over when the device was supposed to be turned off.  The risk, I thought, was that the plane would crash because of the … signals … electric waves … something from this device.  And yet, he didn’t care.  And you know what?  Our plane DID NOT CRASH!  I promise that I will not complain about my students checking their cell phones in class being an indication that this newer generation is disrespectful.  What’s disrespect compared to the prospect of the plane crashing?  We need to keep things in perspective.  And if the lure of texts is so great that this guy risks a plane crash, how can the risk of “disrespect” stand up to that?

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