Allow me to ramble about airport security for a moment.

I'll level with you guys: I don't care about the body scan. I totally understand why other people do, but it doesn't even register with me as an inconvenience. I've looked like this since I was fourteen; I've had a long time to get used to the idea that other people might want to see me naked, and some of them are going to try. I understand that there's no way to stop the really cunning psychopaths, but I don't care how pervy the gate guy is, as long as he's also making a decent effort to make sure I'm not getting on an airplane with some dude who thinks his neighbor's dog told him to board the first Airbus he can find with 37 steak knives and a death wish. More relevantly, I'm also relying on him to make sure some fuckwit doesn't get past with something stupid like a styrofoam cooler full of dry ice that they intend to shove into the overhead bin, whose fumes would provoke widespread panic in the cabin and an emergency landing that would strand me something especially shitty, like maybe Detroit. So far, they seem to be fairly good at that part, even if they are obliged to haggle over water bottles.

I did object vociferously to the backscatter scanners, on the grounds that if you're going to make people go to school for years to become radiology techs, you should probably not let a bunch of Rent-A-Cops play with unregulated fluoroscopes at the airport. I'm catching enough stray cosmic rays by cruising to Minneapolis at FL400, thank you. I only flew once while those things were in use, and it was out of a terminal at Sky Harbor so out of date that their entire security setup was one bored middle-aged guy at a podium and a metal detector whose styling suggested it had been installed shortly after I was born. (I asked politely if I could opt out of the x-ray scan. Officer Bubba just laughed and said they didn't have one.) I'm not worried about being milliwaved for a couple of seconds any more than I am about hovering over the microwave waiting for my soup to heat up, so I can complain about the philosophical ramifications of body scanners from the gate side of the apparatus, where my airplane is.

My actual objection to the TSA is that they're... kinda stupid.

Airport security has never been an issue for me. Emphasis on me. I'm a young attractive white woman who speaks English with an American accent. If it takes me more than two minutes to transition from "may I see your boarding pass" to getting lost on the way to my gate, it's because the only person in front of me hasn't been on an airplane for twenty years, and showed up drunk and wearing complicated shoes. I'm allowed to make smart-ass remarks to the scanner guards, and I know this because they grin at me and make smart-ass remarks first. They consider me so harmless that I didn't have any of my bags searched -- carry-on or checked -- the time I flew one-way, non-stop PHX > BOS on a ticket purchased with someone else's credit card, showed up to the desk with an entire luggage set, made it very clear that I did not care how overweight any of it was, and paid all my baggage charges with a wad of twenties. Hell, they didn't even ask me to turn on the laptop.

This isn't 100% idiotic, on a profiling basis, because I'm not nervous. I'm apparently the only human being in history who likes being on airplanes, even without any pharmacological help. It's a basic tenet of detective work that you spot suspicious people because they know they're doing suspicious things, and suspicious things might get them caught. Having to think about this and monitor their own behavior means they have a much higher cognitive load than you'd normally expect from an innocent person in the same situation. It works pretty well with teenage shoplifters, and probably better than you'd expect with people who are about to commit premeditated murder. I don't ping, because the only thing I'm worried about is where the fuck the "D gates" are that I need to get on a mystery tram to get there -- the security checkpoint is a non-issue.

Unfortunately, the TSA is not populated by detectives. It's populated by a bunch of people who couldn't get any other job. It's less of a condemnation than it might be, the economy being what it is right now, but it does mean you have a mix of people who are probably overall pretty capable, and people who wear Velcro shoes to work for intellectual reasons. It would be effort to sort these people out into the jobs that they're actually suited for, so all of them get thrown into the same bin, with the same instructions, which are geared towards the Velcro-shoe crowd. There are a lot of shortcuts in their profiling guides. Some of them ignore these and some of them don't -- there's a pretty big disparity between the guy at McCarran who was looking at people who walked past him and engaging them in conversation, which is a great way to make them think harder and make their façade wobble if they actually are up to something nefarious, and the guy at Logan who stopped the lady in the headscarf right behind me for no reason that I could discern, and was singularly unwilling to let her go back past the scanner (voluntarily clearing security a second time) for her kids, or check them through so she could watch them all.

(I didn't think it would help matters if I got involved in an argument there, although I did hover at a nearby bench, "texting", in case one of the cleared kids did take off and need to be retrieved before they let the lady through. Sometimes being the one people consider non-threatening is a help, rather than a hindrance -- I'm young and female, so odds were pretty good that nobody would pop a sprocket if I caught a random kid and brought him back where Mom could see him.)

There is kind of an enormous fucking hole here, which is that if you are obviously hassling people who look Muslim, people who want to blow up airplanes will start recruiting people who don't look Muslim to do it. If you want to catch people doing scurrilous things, then you don't look at their hair color or their clothing -- you look at what they're doing. The main effect of their over-simplified Playskool Profiling Kit is to make all people who are aware that they look Muslim very, very nervous, which is going to generate eighty bajillion false positives. I've never gotten any backchat for asking about the scanners, but Moggie (who flies internationally once or twice a year) has, and if you hassle people who don't want to be scanned, then all of them will also start acting in ways that will fuck up your profiling seven different ways from Sunday.

Honestly, the best way to weed out people who are planning on doing something they shouldn't is to keep an eye out and pick up the ones who are nervous even when you aren't being overbearing bastards. Everyone is going to freak out if they think you think they're guilty of something, whether they are or not. You want the ones who freak out because they know they're guilty even when you aren't giving them any warning.

I don't know who's writing the TSA's instruction sheets, but I don't think they have very good people skills.


  1. I'm always vaguely encouraged when I get screened or when my bags are searched, because I'm a non headscarf-wearing white girl who speaks English with an American accent who isn't scared of flying in the slightest, so the fact that I get pulled aside semi-regularly either means that I look more threatening or nervous than I think I do or that some security people are making at least some effort to make their random screening actually random. I assume it's the second.


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