I confess that after the (successfully thwarted) Christmas Day airline bombing attempt, I intentionally avoided reading anything about it - particularly after I heard rumors of new rules being proposed by the TSA. You see, I travel a LOT for my job and didn't need my holiday ruined thinking about how much more miserable my next trip was going to be. Further, my family is getting ready to take an international vacation in a few weeks, increasing my potential travel-related anxiety considerably.
But a few days ago Assignment Editor Ben, knowing how much I travel, asked that I write a post about how a libertarian with anarchist sympathies deals (copes?) with significant amounts of air travel in a post-9/11 world. Several others have written posts and articles about the new policies, how we should react, how we shouldn't react, who's to blame, etc. There have been several posts on this very blog (and on Joel's) analyzing the event and its aftermath from various angles. I'm going to try not to retread most of that analysis. Rather, I'm going to write two posts that focus on my personal experiences - this one, the first, describing my experiences from September 11, 2001 through my last trip just a couple of weeks ago, and the second after my family and I return from Europe describing what, if anything, has changed. Throughout, I will try to explain how someone (myself) who is so rigid in his beliefs about liberty can endure constant government manhandling without going completely insane.
Please click read more below for the first portion of my story.
Part One: September, 2001 through December, 2009
I flew home from a consulting engagement on the evening of September 10, 2001. My job had me traveling quite routinely for the prior four years, and I'd developed a fairly comfortable routine. While air travel wasn't QUITE as effortless as, for example, bus or train travel, restrictions were still minimal: If you could make it through a metal detector and have your bag quickly x-rayed, you could go to the gate. You didn't even need a ticket - my wife would occasionally bring our children and even our dog and meet me at the gate when I arrived home.
One of my teammates was not so fortunate: He was working with a customer in Manhattan, and I was on the phone with him in his hotel in midtown when the second tower collapsed. As I recall, he and his wife (who was traveling with him at the time) were "stuck" in New York City for over a week while everyone sorted out how to get the planes back in the air. Other colleagues rented cars and drove them across the country to get home. We all knew our travel experiences were going to change, but I don't think any of us predicted how senseless many of the changes would be.
The initial changes to airport security seemed sensible enough. Only ticket-holders could pass through security and go to the gates, and tickets and identification were scrutinized more carefully. The definition of a "weapon" was expanded to include small knives, scissors, golf clubs, and baseball bats. These were annoying, but not exactly objectionable on principle. But once the federal government used the opportunity to establish the Transportation Security Administration and take over all airport security, I knew to prepare myself for wave after wave of government mandated stupidity. Once the responsibility for our collective "safety" while flying fell under the authority of the Executive Branch, it was clear that policy would be made based not on ACTUAL safety, but on what would be PERCEIVED by the electorate as "George W. Bush is doing everything he can to keep us safe." It was also easy to foresee the TSA employee's loss of leeway to take common-sense action in enforcing safety policies due to the massive increase in bureaucracy and the distance (both literal and organizational) between policy-makers and policy-enforcers.
And, unsurprisingly, what followed were a series of senseless, inflexible, and disruptive reminders that our lives were still not safe, even less free, and much less convenient. Or, as BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow made so perfectly and humorously clear in his proposed TSA logo:
It started with shoes. Never mind that anything that would make a shoe dangerous could just as easily be carried in your pockets, we all had to take our shoes off every time. Soon to follow: Liquids. No more bringing your own soda or water for a long trip. No gels or pastes either, unless they were in small packages and carried in a one-quart ziplock bag. I had an exasperating experience with TSA staff at the San Jose Airport who insisted on confiscating my almost-empty tube of toothpaste on the grounds that it had a CAPACITY of more than three ounces, even though any idiot could see there was less than an ounce left in the tube.
And idiots were clearly what the authorities took us all to be: The terrorists were too stupid to keep their gelatinous explosives and sharp, non-metal objects on their person. The TSA employees were too stupid to be allowed to use the most basic judgment in enforcing regulations. And all of us were too stupid to realize that none of this was making us the slightest bit safer.
The flailing didn't stop. We had increasingly intrusive pat-downs and searches of personal belongings, and more items were added to the list of restricted objects. I'm a big fat guy with sleep apnea, and my CPAP machine has to be hand checked and dusted for explosive residue EVERY SINGLE TIME I go through security. My laptop computer, cell phone, and other electronics sail right on through, but somehow a glorified air pump MUST be inspected. I assume the thwarted CPAP plot is one of those incidents Dick Cheney said we won't ever hear about. Many of the airports I frequent already use full-body scanners on occasion, and of course there's plenty of talk now about making those scanners universal and compulsory.
How have I dealt with all of this? Quietly and compliantly, like every other sheep. What else can be done? I could change careers, I suppose, but I think that would fairly fall into the "cutting off my nose to spite my face" category of solutions. I could cause trouble at the checkpoints, but I don't imagine that would result in anything productive. And traditional market forces don't even apply here: If I "withhold my business" the airlines suffer, but the perpetrators themselves are not impacted. So, to a great extent, I've resigned myself that providing for my family with my current skill set requires that I submit myself routinely to stupid and inappropriate searches and prodding - much like I've determined that caring for my family is more important than taking a principled (dogmatic?) stand against taxation. Yes, standing up to tyranny has to start somewhere, but at this point I don't think it's a good idea to leave a wife and two kids without a husband/father so that I can go out in a blaze of glory.
Don't get me wrong: I haven't been detained and handcuffed for nothing in particular. I haven't had a TSA goon grab my crotch during a search. But others have, and for what? What have these new measures achieved that merit the loss of liberty (and dignity) that we ALL suffer in their wake? I can't imagine.