If you're like me, and I know I am...

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Airport scans or scams?

On Sept. 11, 2001, I became painfully aware that I'd be writing the phrase "On Sept. 11, 2001..." for years to come. It was pretty obvious by brunch time that day that we were living through zeitgeist-altering events that would shape the new millennium pretty drastically and for quite a while, too. What we didn't know at the time, what we could not have predicted, was that our country would turn into a Terry Gilliam inspired paranoid comedy where business-as-usual would be the real devil in the details.

Take the current state of our nation's airports. Now, if you're like me -- and I know I am -- then you don't mind being publically groped by strangers or photographed in the nude by them so long as they have plausible deniability or an abundance of natural charisma. Protests about civil liberties aside, most of us don't mind a few silly security measures or even a host of monotonous questions and inspections. But what is difficult to come to terms with is when these measures become so laughably predictable in their knee-jerk responsiveness to grand failures that they offend reason and undermine the system they purport to protect.

As I learned at Iowa State, a little depravity goes a long way whether safety is an issue or not. But even if full body scans and prurient pat downs were able to keep us perfectly safe in flight, these measures stop no one from walking into an airport with a steamer trunk full of nitrogen-rich fertilizer, a gasoline can and a Zippo. For all the security on the concourse between you and your plane there is nothing more daunting than a couple of stupid questions from a bored ticket agent before that. Wile E. Coyote could successfully execute a terror plot at an airport without a ticket for a flight. It just isn't that hard and anyone with an imagination could cook up a scheme.

And yet every time some fool or zealot attempts to detonate their clothing in flight, we invest in millions of dollars worth of equipment and procedures experts admit aren't actually keeping us safe. The underwear bomber would have made his way easily through an x-ray scanner and an aggressive pat down. Airports are as vulnerable as they ever were and jets are only moderately safer due to a more vigilant flying public.

What we have here is business-as-usual dressed up as "new and improved." It's the same scam ad men use to sell detergent. We don't have safety so much as the illusion of safety. Something bad happened and it made us feel better for a while to know somebody somewhere was doing something. So long as nothing really bad happened again, we were content to take off our shoes in public and believe with all our might that double-checking everyone with a beard was working.

The problem is that crises always prompts the greedy to find the profit in our fear. Every industry in this nation has a lobby in Washington and security is no different. Manufacturers of the "naked scanner," awkwardly named Rapiscan, have a contract worth $173 million and employ former Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff as a consultant. According to reports in USA Today and the Washington Examiner, security firms have been doubling their efforts and dollars in D.C. There's lucre to be made in security and you had better believe your privacy and safety are the last things on anyone's mind but yours.