My flight leaves at 4 am. I don’t have a car and I can’t really ask my hosts to drop me off at the airport at 2 in the morning, so there is no way around it; I’ll have to sleep at the airport. The problem is that I don’t want to miss the plane, so I am too afraid to actually sleep. What I do when I arrive at Ben Gurion Airport, in Tel Aviv, Israel is learn how to identify the plain clothes officers checking the trash cans and potted plants for bombs.
It’s 1996, which is after the end of the first Intifada and maybe just before the beginning of the second. It’s hardly peace in Israel but there aren’t daily suicide bombings either. Meanwhile, Ben Gurion international airport hasn’t had a terrorist attack since the Japanese Red Army attached in 1972. They are highly professional and extremely diligent. This is the second time I’ve been to Israel, so I am at least familiar with the procedure.
Check-in begins three hours before departure and it’s wise not to be late because it does take a while. I won’t be late of course. I am busy staying awake decoding the behavior of the wired security officers, who walk casually around the airport about every ten minutes. One is wearing a casual white suit with just a dark t-shirt underneath his jacket. He looks very Miami Vice. In spite of his fashion choice there really is little to tip off the casual observer that he or his colleagues are security officers. I only notice him because he keeps poking around in the philodendron next to me until I finally check it to see what he was looking for in there. He also carefully lifts discarded newspapers and magazines before continuing on his rounds.
At 1:00 am I wander towards the gate and wait in line. My bag is run through an x-ray machine and I collect it again when the interview begins. Dozens and dozens of questions are asked. Why am I visiting Israel? Business. Who have I met here? Several companies and a business colleague. Their names? I offer business cards. How long was I here? Week and a half. Where did I stay while I was here? Hotel Dan Panorama in Tel Aviv. What do I have in my bag? My clothes, but also my computer. Can I turn it on for them? Sure. Why did I bring my computer? To record contact reports and business information. Show us. I open the file. The agent reads a bit of it to be sure I am not making this up. It’s a boring contact report.
I like Israel. It’s an amazing historical place, it has a huge range of environments: beaches, mountains, fertile valleys and dry deserts. It’s also home to some of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen. The agent interviewing me is a young and typical woman from Tel Aviv: she’s beautiful. She’s petite, and she wears what could be an FBI-issue black suit. Her dark, thick, curly hair pours down in a huge mane around her neck sets off her bright green eyes.
It’s late and she’s very attractive so I don’t think I can be blamed for chatting her up a bit. This is bad form, I am sure, but I try to be very nice about it (I hope.) I am mildly amusing in my answers to where I have been and what I have been doing and how absolutely boring my contact report would be even if she does want to read it. She’s young and I am a lot more interesting than the rest of the balding travelers in the line this morning so she laughs and bats her eyes a bit. She even got flustered going through her script a few times. We exchange the charmed glances of people who know they’re never going to see each other again anyway and who recognize how nice it is to get a compliment from a stranger and she sends me to the next stop where I wait.
I see her conferring with another agent. He’s more serious and they discuss my interview for a time until he comes over and asks me all the questions all over again. He changes the wording sometimes and they’re not in the same order. There’s no banter with him, because he’s clearly not interested in any humor at this time of the morning, so things go a bit quicker and much more business like. Finally he’s finished and he returns to discuss my new answers with the female agent. After a time I am allowed to repack my bag, and check it in.
There are no questions about whether I know who packed my bag to which I can automatically say yes. Whether I received any packages from someone unknown to me to which I can automatically say yes. My shoes are not removed. Everyone is asked the same questions. There is no profiling except that some people who don’t try to flirt with the security agents get through the line a bit quicker. I don’t feel demeaned or even for that matter as if my privacy is violated simply because the questions, while voluminous are always asked professionally and one gets the idea that one could refuse to answer, although the punishment would clearly be dozens more questions.
This all works because the process, while exhaustive, is highly professional and because their system is thought through to actually catch people with holes in their stories or frayed nerves. Far fewer people travel through Ben Gurion Airport than Denver International so it’s quite possible that this system would not be feasible here, but it’s equally clear that our current system is simply ineffective. Or take this example:
In June 2002 news leaked out that TSA airport screeners missed 24 percent of the weapons and imitation bombs planted in the government’s undercover security tests. At some major airports, screeners failed to detect potentially dangerous objects in half the tests. The results were worse than they first appeared, because the testers were ordered not to “artfully conceal” the deadly contraband and instead pack their luggage “consistent with how a typical passenger in air transportation might pack a bag.” Although the tests seemed designed to see if screeners could catch terrorists with single-digit IQs, they still failed to find the weapons much of the time.
The Transportation Security Administration is a $5.3 billion organization but I don’t feel one bit safer with them on the job intimidating me to take my shoes off. (Have a look at the signs around the security gate at the airport. They request that you remove your shoes but can’t require you to do so. In fact, however, each person who refuses to do so is selected for wanding and more complete search.)
I might more comfortably submit to reasonable, non-invasive search if I felt that it actually contributed to my safety but demanding people leave nail clippers in their carry on luggage while allowing them to carry fountain pens on board is ludicrous. We don’t have a right to fly and the airlines can reasonably demand a variety of search requirements be fulfilled in order to fly on their private planes. The TSA, on the other hand, is a government organization which seems committed to bullying passengers into submission more than contributing to our safety. All the while the bulk of that $5.3 billion will be spent on keeping our airways safe when there are dozens or hundreds of channels for terrorists to explore some of which are still completely ignored by the TSA or even Homeland Security. Just look at Israel. The airport is well protected so busses get bombed. Teach the bus drivers to spot terrorists better and the McDavid’s get bombed (McDavid’s is a kosher fast food restaurant.) Israel is finally getting the idea that security is good, but peace is better.
The problem with profiling and bag searching is how it simply doesn’t work. We can’t reasonably check every single person so no matter of profiling will be 100% and we can’t check every item so no amount of bag searching will be 100%. We are allowing ourselves to have our privacy invaded for the feeling of safety, since, after all, the actually safety we receive is minimal. Searches on subways are even more absurd, but I’ll save that for another entry.
Later in the airport I catch a glimpse of the cute security agent from earlier. She smiles at me and then grimaces so I approach her to say hello. She tells me that I got her in trouble with her supervisor for not handling the security check professionally enough. We both laugh at this, enjoy smiling at each other for a moment and she moves off before I make my way to the gate to catch my flight. I can’t prove that I was more secure in Israel, but it sure was a more pleasant experience than taking off my shoes and walking through a metal detector.