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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Dangerous Liasions: Through the X-ray: flying and airport security in the United States

<irport on the way back to Carleton at the beginning of Winter term, I had bought some new face lotion in one of the airport stores during my several-hour layover in the terminal before going through security (not smart). I was running late for my flight and had about five minutes to get to my gate when I entered the long, snake-like security line. Upon looking at the lotion again while waiting, realizing that it was 3.4 ounces—0.4 ounces over the maximum liquid container allowed—and not wanting to get held up or stopped, I chucked it into the massive bin by the x-ray machine. As I’m undressing myself and separating my possessions between three separate bins, a TSA officer comes up to me. “Do you mind me asking what you just threw in there?” he says. When I tell him it was my face lotion that was 3.4 ounces, he says, “I would have let you bring that on.” I tell him thank you, but that I had just thrown it in the garbage because I was running late for my flight and didn’t want to risk getting stopped. He smiles and tells me that it’s a huge waste, and though I agree, I proceed through the metal detector and begin to gather my belongings. As I’m putting on my second shoe and getting ready to sprint towards my gate, the same TSA officer comes up behind me. “You know what, let me see if I can find that lotion for you.” I can’t say no, so I stand there and watch him dive head-first into the tall trash bin and fish through other people’s discarded water bottles and toothpaste tubes as it gets later and later past my scheduled boarding time. When he finally comes up for air he’s holding my lotion in one hand, and a grungy orange bottle of sunscreen in the other, and tells me to take the one that’s mine.

As a nervous, frequent flier, the situation in which I have to maneuver the airport security lines, frazzled and under time pressure, is not unusual. The most common thought that goes through my mind whenever I’m standing in a security line is that our airport security system is highly flawed, its routine rituals unnecessary and emblematic. I don’t see how requiring people to take off their heel-less flats, and submit to random bag checks—especially since when I am selected and present to them my stuffed-to-the-max, multi-pocketed backpack, all they do is feel around the top layer of the bag and open my jewelry case—secures us, or the airplanes we will board, in any way. It’s not a criticism of how security agents do their jobs; throughout the years they have managed to get people through lines faster and faster, and sometimes they even make efforts to render the experience humorous. But there is always something added to the prohibited list, something that always slows us down again, something that, in my opinion, will not make us any safer.

Our insistence to have such lengthy security procedures is naïve and slightly ridiculous. We are all smart enough to realize that no matter what kind of extravagant measures that airport security takes every day at any airport, there is still always a chance of terrorist activity aboard planes. Our security system is not only inefficient, but a huge waste of resources and time for everyone involved. It is exasperating to watch parents have to put their two-month child’s plastic baby carrier through the x-ray machine. I doubt very much that our security would be threatened that much more if airport security were to abandon many of the habitual ceremonies that they perform daily. I believe strongly that we need to devote our energy towards finding more productive ways to keep us safe, rather than carry out needless procedures because we don’t want to admit that we can’t control everything.

Yet, despite all of this, I must admit that I still need the symbolism, the empty gestures, and the just-for-show practices. Of course I see through them; of course I wish they weren’t necessary for me to feel safe. But they still make me feel more comfortable and secure, and put me at ease in the context of nerve-wracking travels. I never mind being stopped or having things confiscated from me, and I never actually mind sitting a little longer on the runway waiting for the plane to get all fueled up and checked.

These contradictory feelings make it difficult to envisage a more productive system. It would be wonderful if we could come up with a process or strategy that lessens the current redundant customs but yet still retains its semblance of putting a maximum amount of energy into keeping us safe. To me, this still means having just-for-show bag checks and making me put my laptop in a separate bin on the x-ray belt and even making me throw away a 3.4-ounce bottle of lotion. Obviously, the discrepancies between being safe and feeling safe are enormous, and many will argue that feeling safe is not necessary. But feeling safe, I think, still is, whether it should be or not, a fundamental factor in our lives, especially in environments like airports, where people are still afraid.

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