BY JUSTIN SHANES
Lately there’s been a lot of chatter about the newly approved, more invasive airport security procedures. CNN had a piece on it, The New York Times ran an article, and USA Today even addressed the matter in one of its coveted multicolored pie charts – that’s when you know a news story has reached critical mass. But long before Paula Zahn or Matt Drudge picked up the scent, I found myself getting a first-hand lesson in the new procedures at LaGuardia Airport in New York.
The security process started off like any other. I removed my jacket, belt, shoes, bag, loose change, and cell phone and emptied them into the plastic bin, only to set off the metal detector anyway (I suspect that the iron in my daily Flintstones vitamin was the culprit, but who knows). Upon hearing the beep, the security guard escorted me to the side and cordoned me off with the same escape-proof fencing used at such high-security venues as movie theater ticket lines. I stood there for a good minute, trembling like a frightened calf in anticipation of the slaughter. But then suddenly he emerged, the man who for the next five minutes would bring me straight to heaven and back: Charles from airport security.
Charles informed me that I had been flagged and would be receiving a more thorough inspection of my belongings, as well as a pat-down. At this point, things still seemed pretty standard. First, Charles had me open my messenger bag, and then insisted that I open all the smaller, ancillary pockets. Now here’s my question: is any terrorist really hinging his success on the off-chance that these secondary pockets will be neglected? You’re a terrorist determined to smuggle contraband onto a flight and that’s the basket all your eggs are in – extra pockets? But I digress.
Once he was assured that nothing in my bag posed a threat to humanity (he must have missed the John Mayer CD), Charles told me to stand up and look straight ahead. This is where things took a weird turn. Rather than the light, half-assed pat-downs you usually get at the airport, Charles proceeded to manhandle me like he was playing Cranium and I was the purple Play-Doh. And let me tell you – it was awesome! Those nimble hands enveloped me in their sweet caress, and I felt like a little schoolgirl being touched for the very first time. Then I heard the words I’ll never forget: “Now for the sensitive areas, I’m going to use the back of my hand.” To my delight, everything up to this point had been foreplay. Charles was just getting started.
With a steady outstretched arm he began pressing his hand up against my crotch, his knuckles kneading my weapon of mass destruction. I giggled at first, but he cast a reassuring look my way, as if to say “It’s alright, baby. I’m gonna take care of you. The Department of Homeland Security appreciates your brave sacrifice.” And that’s what I think impressed me the most – how cool and nonchalant he was about the whole affair. He knew what I wanted and got right to it, without letting either of us get bogged down in messy emotion. Yet just before I was brought up to a full boil, the moment was over, and Charlie told me that I was free to go.
Initially I was bemused and frustrated. Charles didn’t seem like one to blue ball like this. He handed me my loose change and cell phone, but I failed to seize on this perfect opportunity to ask for his precious digits. Fortunately, I was able to obtain them afterward with some modest research (9-1-1, is that Park Slope?). As I collected my belongings and headed for the gate, I made the mistake of looking back over my shoulder. There was Charles, patting down another passenger. They were totally wrong for each other, no chemistry at all. And I took comfort in the fact that no one would share what he and I had for at least a couple more flights.
As with every situation, someone always has to come along and ruin the fun. Tons of complaints have been filed by airline passengers who are decrying the new pat-downs as humiliating and gratuitous. Graduate student Sommer Gentry was quoted in U.S. News & World Report as saying, “How can I feel safe when the TSA is ordering me to let strangers put their hands all over my most intimate places?” I’m sorry, but did it just get hot in here? Phew, somebody crack open a window.
Security officials have been responding to the criticism by highlighting certain privacy safeguards. For instance, passengers can request that the frisking be conducted in a private room away from everyone else. Now that’s what I’m talking about: candle lighting, velvet drapes, a little Luther playing in the background. This is a great way to set the mood and ease people into the search. I only wish that I had known about the private room option beforehand.
Others suggest that the best way to deal with the “problem” is to give passengers more extensive notice of what they can expect during the frisk. This is so terribly misguided. What made my experience so entirely magical was that element of surprise. What should have been a perfunctory head-to-toe swipe with that metal detector wand thingamajig (which is the technical term) became a carnal journey of passion and airline safety. They say that you find love when you are least looking for it, and they are so right.
Now it’s not that the critics don’t have a point. It’s just that they don’t care about safety. After all, who could feel any safer knowing that security guards are fondling people’s breasts and genitals at the airports? I haven’t felt this secure since September 10, 2001. Forget about the fruitless crusading in Iraq, the Abu Ghraib scandal, the porous national borders… if we can just be a little more intrusive with our airport pat-downs, I think we’ve got this war on terror in the bag. Sure, there are some who charge that this is all window dressing, that the path from airline check-in to your gate is merely a Potemkin voyage designed to create the illusion of safety. These people are probably terrorists. If you know them, please report them to Alberto Gonzales.
So what lessons can be learned from my experience? To be frank, not many, though I think an extra spritz of cologne may be in order before heading to the airport next time. All I know is that I had originally planned to take the train back to Cambridge last Sunday, but simply could not pass up the possibility of running into Charles, with his wandering hands and soft touch. Amtrak needs to get on the ball – literally. Until then, it’s the high skies for me.
Guest columnist Justin Shanes is a 2L.