Taking off Your Shoes; Osama Bin Laden Could Get through the Line If the Name on His License Was the Same as That on His Ticket and He Wasn't Packing Oil of Olay

Newsweek, November 13, 2006 | Go to article overview

Taking off Your Shoes; Osama Bin Laden Could Get through the Line If the Name on His License Was the Same as That on His Ticket and He Wasn't Packing Oil of Olay


Byline: Anna Quindlen

This one's for you! Yes, you, the guy in the security line at Newark airport who confiscated my pomade because the jar was marked 3.5 ounces when the Transportation Security Administration regulations mandate less than three.

"I scooped out half of it so it would be under the limit," I explained as my husband slid by with a five-ounce tube of shaving cream. Never fear, frequent fliers: he was nabbed later, on the return flight from Ohio, along with that woman with the contraband Robitussin.

Is this any way to run an airline? Between constant delays and nonexistent services, flying has become the modern version of seafaring steerage accommodations. But nothing has made it seem worse than the long lines of bedraggled and beaten-down travelers at security checkpoints, pouring their change into plastic tubs, standing in stocking feet as their shoes are scanned, proffering zip-lock bags full of face creams and foundation. Before the ban on such items in carry-ons was relaxed, I watched three tubes of Maybelline Great Lash go plunk into the bin, stupid enough to believe that if they had passed Orlando they could make it through Atlanta or Seattle. As a frowning agent tossed the stuff, I had a mental picture of terrorists seizing control of a passenger jet armed with mascara wands. Which is no sillier than most of what passes for airport security.

This is not merely an inconvenience. The whole cockeyed system has become a symbol of the shortcomings of government programs and responses. It's expensive, arbitrary and infuriating; it turns low-wage line workers into petty despots. And instead of making Americans feel safer, its sheer silliness illuminates how impotent we are in the face of terrorism. The hustle and bustle at U.S. checkpoints is window dressing, another one of those rote, unthinking exercises that are the hallmark of bureaucracies, like "Bleak House" with luggage.

It's always tempting for a taxpayer to daydream about all the things government money could be used for if used sensibly. I have a laundry list in my computer of those programs we could have bankrolled instead of what may wind up being a $2 trillion invasion of Iraq. Preschool for every child, enormous grants for medical research, a system of universal health care. A trillion is a terrible thing to waste.

There's the same kind of wish list for the TSA, which wants to spend more than $4 billion on aviation security next year, most of it ham-handedly. Terrorism isn't stopped at the X-ray machines, but through well-funded intelligence efforts like the one in England that foiled a plot at Heathrow in August. …

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