So we're all talking about port security this week, and the debate over the Bush administration decision to allow an United Arab Emirates company to manage six ports in the United States. That debate is turning bitter, and I wonder if the backlash against President Bush isn't partly due to the fact that everyone in America has witnessed or has been a victim of the incompetence of the airport security system. Why would people assume the government knows what it's doing when it makes decisions about the ports? It doesn't know what it's doing at the airports.If Ms. Noonan would really like to light up the boards, let me tell you about getting an explosives' hit off one's laptop. Lights and buzzers start flashing, as if you've finally won a middling slot jackpot in Vegas...people being moving away from you...the nice man behind the machine orders you to place your hands, palm down, on the table until the men with guns get there. And then — this is my second favorite part! — a man with a gun asks if you can give a "credible reason" why the sniffer "smelled" explosive residue on your laptop.
Other than, say, you're operating a bomb factory out of your suitcase.
In my case — not surprisingly — it turned out not just well, but funny. The smell of testosterone was so strong I moved at 1/2 speed, asking permission before each step. "May I take my hands off the table?" "My I get a business card out of my wallet?" Etc. Standard Third World Operating Procedures, evolved to keep me from being iced on the side of some jungle road by a 16-year-old with an FN-FAL. Except, of course, I was in a major U.S. airport (which is, I guess, sort of like the Third World these days, except it's harder to bribe the officials).
The TSA guy on the sniffer looks at my card and before I can say anything else says, "Hell, I watch this guy's show all the time! He blows stuff up every week!" Well, every other week, I think, but I grin and keep my mouth shut. Everybody relaxes...I sign a couple of autographs, hand out some SHOOTING GALLERY pins, shake hands and make my flight.
Back when airport security really started cranking after 9/11, my friend and mentor Walt Rauch, who — like me — is demonstrably paranoid, said that it was all smoke and mirrors, but with a decidedly nefarious purpose: "They're getting us ready for what comes next," he said.
Which is, I asked?
You've traveled, Walt said to me. You've seen it all before: "Your papers, please!" "Come with us while we verify your identity." "You need to be detained, and, no, you can't make a phone call to your attorney." "Get in line for special processing..."
Reading Peggy Noonan's column, I can't help but thinking that Walt is, unfortunately, far too correct...a bad moon is rising out there.
One more airport story. I got pegged for "additional security measures" because I'm on the list as someone who travels with guns — before you all start baying, "What list?," it's the list everyone claims doesn't exist...the one that gets me comments like, "I'm sorry, Mr. Bane, but you're not eligible for internet or curbside check-in. You have to go inside." Or, "Are we carrying a gun today, Mr. Bane?" Or, "Are you aware, Mr. Bane, that it is a federal felony to not declare a firearm if you're carrying one?" Or, "Are you sure you're not traveling with a firearm today, Mr. Bane?" Of course there's no list! Anyway, I digress...
So I get shunted to the windowless room, where I assume the crucified position before being ordered to and try to similarly assume an air of indifference, or maybe distain.
"So you think this is all a joke, huh?" my examiner says, poking me pretty hard with his cattle prod-cum-metal detector. "You frequent fliers don't give a darn about what we're doing here..."
Couple of years ago, I say, dooming myself to missing my flight, I spent some time with an Israeli security guy. I don't think this is a joke. I know this is a joke.
"You spent time with the Israelis?" my examiner said, lowering his prod. I nodded. "You're right," he said. "Get the hell out of here."
And an aside, from yesterday's USA Today:
WASHINGTON — Congress is headed toward approving a plan that would require employers to check every worker's Social Security number or immigration work permit against a new federal computer database.
Critics see the move — aimed at stemming illegal immigration — as the beginning of a government information stockpile that could be used to track U.S. residents.
"We're getting closer and closer to a national ID card," says Tim Sparapani, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union.