Security Theater in Three Airports: Istanbul, Paris, and Atlanta

Returning recently from a trip to Turkey, my wife and I had the distinct displeasure of passing repeatedly through “security” checkpoints, not to mention waiting in long queues in order to arrive at these unpleasant passages. Although every country’s airport security boasts its own unique idiocies, all have much in common. It’s a waste of time to fret about swine flu; the more pressing danger to the world is obviously fool flu – although I am not sure who are the greater fools, the politicians and their flunkies who put these stupid procedures in place or the masses who put up with them in the wholly mistaken belief that their security is thereby enhanced.

But let us not dwell on generalities when specifics lie so close at hand. Consider food. As all travelers have learned, the authorities strictly forbid passengers from bringing onboard an aircraft any food that has not been purchased in the airport outlets available to them after they have successfully navigated past the checkpoints. Moreover, U.S. authorities forbid travelers entering the United States from bringing various food items into the country with them. Nevertheless, because the Turks make scrumptious candies and pastries – I particularly recommend the baklava with finely ground pistachio nuts – we decided to bring some of these treats home with us despite the security prohibition, being confident that the security employees’ abysmal level of competence gave us a good chance of success in the commission of this forbidden act. Suffice to say that our packages of candy and pastries sailed though all of the checkpoints ever so smoothly.

To compound the absurdity of the enforcement apparatus, a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent with a sniffing dog stopped by our bags as we were collecting them after entering the United States at the Atlanta airport. Uh, oh, I thought, as the dog took a distinct interest in our luggage and would not move along on his appointed rounds. The agent asked, “Are these your bags.” I confessed that they were. “You have any food in them?” “Yes, we have some sweets.” “Okay.” Still the dog would not move on. “You have any pets at home?” “Oh, yes, we have tons of pets at home – cats, and dogs, and what have you.” “Okay,” he said, dragging the unfortunate Gestapo-pooch away from our luggage. We were greatly relieved, first that the airport thugs had not gunned us down on the spot for our admitted violation of the no-food rule, and second, for our good fortune in getting the cherished treats to their intended destination in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, where we have been enjoying them for the past several days. (Note to unfriendly readers: don’t bother to report us; by the time the gendarmes get here, we certainly shall have eaten all of the evidence.)

Not all airport security is created equally idiotic. I hereby award the blue ribbon to the Charles de Gaulle International Airport outside Paris, where we transferred from one aircraft to another on our trip from Istanbul to New Orleans. Many people think of Paris as a romantic place. Get over it. It’s actually an asylum for persons deemed incapable of holding down a real job, as opposed to a job in airport security. The queues seemed interminable – at least the ones into which we were herded, notwithstanding that nearby queues had hardly anyone in them. This lop-sided arrangement was probably a test setup arranged by a security expert with a minor in queuing theory (his identity will be revealed, no doubt, when he is awarded a future Nobel Prize in Economic Science). The French authorities seemed to be mightily exercised about the threat posed by swine flu, completely overlooking the greater threat posed by the fool flu that was manifestly running rampant at the airport.

My wife Elizabeth was traveling with a lead-lined bag, approximately six inches by ten inches in size, to shield her photographic film from damage by the X-ray machines. When an X-ray machine produces an image of such a bag, it shows up on the screen as a large totally black rectangle, a fact that induces some of the less idiotic airport-security personnel to panic and inquire into what it is, and even to open it and paw through the rolls of film in search of those containing plastic explosive, fuses, and timing mechanisms. Shoe bombs are passé; film-pack bombs are now all the rage among fashionable terrorists. To make my story short, I can state for the record that the Parisian X-ray personnel blinked not an eye upon seeing a large black blob on their screens. Move along, mes amis; you may proceed with your parcel of explosives and whatever other hidden items your black blob contains. Bon voyage!

It would be droll to maintain that we did enjoy a bonne journée, but the imperative of telling the truth forbids me from maintaining that we did so. The time spent – in truth, more suffered than merely spent – in enduring our passages through three of the world’s more prominent security theaters guaranteed that whatever other indignities might have dimmed the sunlight of our travels, the airport Gestapos in themselves were more than adequate to ruin the entire experience. Elizabeth declared most emphatically that she will never travel again, except by ship.

Like Paris, foreign travel used to be seen as romantic, or at least as interesting and enjoyable. Gone are the days. Today’s world traveler is little more than a guinea pig in a diabolical experiment designed to determine how much abuse the masses will take before either lapsing into complete madness or taking up pitchforks and torches and coming after the Dr. Frankensteins who created these “security” monstrosities.

“Mankind,” declared the American revolutionaries of 1776, “are more disposed to suffer, while Evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the Forms to which they are accustomed.” I submit that the mass endurance of “airport security” illustrates the truth of this statement. The American Declaration, however, went on to say: “But when a long Train of Abuses and Usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their Right, it is their Duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future Security.” Amen, brothers and sisters. Moreover, if not us, who? If not now, when?

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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