Sitting in a hard plastic chair, waiting for someone to show up and pat search me, I look at the mass of people going through airport security around me and wonder if we’re safe yet.
I remember what air travel used to be like. One went to the airport with a identification and a ticket, checked in at the desk, and leisurely walked to the gate, oftentimes accompanied by family members or loved ones. I have fond memories of my grandparents waving at the window as I boarded my flight in Tuscon. I have pictures at the Manchester airport with my firstborn as she waited to board her first flight alone to college. Back then, airports were happy places. Security, if there was any, was hidden in the background.
When my mother traveled to Italy one year, she was struck by the fact that airports there had security officers that carried guns. Machine guns. My mother was a cop, so it wasn’t the guns that scared her. It was the fact that it seemed reasonable to expect an event requiring an armed response.
Something we thought would never happen here.
And then 9/11 happened and all of a sudden U.S.airports had armed men and woman. I remember the first time flying through Charlotte and seeing men, who I assumed were National Guard or the like, positioned throughout the airport with casually held machine guns and rifles. It lent a different tenor to the trip, but deep down I was more scared of the men with guns than I was of terrorists. The guns I could see. The tension I could feel. How many times has a simple misunderstanding escalated into violence? Enough to know that men with guns frightened me and had no place in the airport.
The guns were only the first change. Suddenly only “authorized travelers,” meaning those with tickets and boarding passes, could enter the gate areas. Metal detectors and x-rayed luggage became the new standard. We all learned the ever changing rules of travel: Laptops out and turned on, shoes, jackets, and belts off. No nail clippers, no lighters, no scissors. The area around the screening checkpoint became choked with the belongings we left behind in order to go forward. We packed our bags and hoped the inadvertent tangle of cords and batteries didn’t get mistaken for a bomb.
We became afraid to say the word bomb in the airport terminal.
Then one sunny day I traveled back from Myrtle Beach and discovered liquids were the new enemy. Forget carrying drinks on the plane, let alone shampoo or conditioner. Security made us dump them at the gate. Liquids in our carry-on bags were first forbidden, and then “after extensive research and understanding of current threats” (TSA website) were allowed in 3.4 ounces containers in a ziplock bag. Security checkpoint trashes overflowed with oversized shampoo bottles, liquid foundation, and discarded drinks.
Then full body scanner machines were introduced. Touted as a noninvasive method to detect items hidden under clothes, we learned to stand with our arms outstretched and our feet on the yellow outlines. We took off our shoes, jackets, belts, hats. We took our laptops out and put them in a separate bin. Our liquids, too. We watched as TSA officials scrutinized our identification cards and checked our boarding passes. At least they didn’t have guns. We endured pat downs in public. We endured pat downs in private. Trigger the metal detector or refuse the body scanner and assume the position.
So as I waited at Charlotte airport recently on a hard black, plastic chair for someone to pat me down, I saw people pass with dogs, cats, small children, strollers and wheelchairs. Surprisingly, none of them went through the metal detector or the body scanner. They, and their owners were pulled aside, I assume for a pat down, but what good is patting down a cat? A dog? A stroller? A wheelchair?
If a determined person wants to get a bomb, a gun, or an airborne virus on a plane, do we have the technology to stop them? I don’t believe our security can keep up with human ingenuity. If someone wants to do it bad enough, they’ll find a way.
I think of all of the liberties we have given up, all of the dignity we have lost, all of the changes we have endured, and I have to ask, are we safe yet? I think not.