Cartouche's Blog

Writing My Way Out of Something


Someplace, somewhere else, USA
February 09
Mind My Own Business
Artist, former newspaper columnist and restaurant critic. Award-winning author of "In Pursuit of Excellence". In my spare minute I can be found blogging here, on Huffington Post and other places that don't pay and (more often) writing for some places that do. Occasionally I tweet random thoughts and observations as @nonconfromist. I keep the really good ones to myself.


NOVEMBER 19, 2010 10:10AM

Groping for Truth Behind Airport Security

Rate: 53 Flag

Less than two months after 9/11, I was at the airport, getting on a plane heading to Muskogee, Oklahoma.  Don't ask.  (Don't tell.)  From the minute I arrived at the airport, I noticed that everything had changed.  Police cars circled the entire area like choreographed water ballet.  The parking lot felt more menacing in broad daylight than I had ever sensed it to be on the nights I had flown in late and tried to remember where I had parked my car days earlier as I scoured the garage alone.

No more easy exchange with the curbside check-in attendants.  $25 represented something more threatening than goodwill or an earnest plea to allow those extra 3lbs. to fly without additional charges, before luggage had any charges at all.  Facing the new and improved security barriers that separated fliers from the rest of the world suddenly looked like the Berlin Wall.  The lines between us and them had been drawn and were divided by a thing called “Security”.  Those lines were long.

Everyone was suspicious.  Everyone was unsure.  Everyone was afraid.  Including me.

The shoes I was wearing, my computer, the extra sweater and coat, my makeup and belt, the contents of my pocketbook and even the underwire of my bra raised everyone’s suspicion, including my own.  After passing through the metal detector and being patted down, I scrambled to gather my belongings as they tumbled and slid down the conveyor belt.  Colliding with each other, they ended up sandwiched between the heap of my predecessor’s collection and a pair of large men’s shoes and a briefcase that chased them.  I had a fleeting thought of my family going through a similar albeit more humiliating experience when they arrived at Auschwitz in 1944.  They surrendered much more than their luggage and paid with their lives.  No metal detectors there.

After recovering from the shellshock of what security had become and realizing that this was our foreseeable future, I made my way to C14 for my flight to Oklahoma City.  It took me only a minute or two to realize how the landscape had changed.   I realized that one or several madmen had reduced us to this rubble of our own (in)humanity.  There would be no more “before” or going back to the way it was.  Overnight, we sped from zero to less than that in our endless pursuit of life and liberty. We could almost see it in the rearview mirror of our lives as we wondered, “What would Bill do?”

Gone were the gate-side joyous reunions and romantic, kiss-filled, tearful goodbyes.  No more peering through the expansive windows at the planes gently gliding through the air, approaching with peaceful resolve and touching down on the runway against a picture perfect blue sky.  No more marveling that man himself had created a mode of transportation we had come to take for granted but still inspired fascination.  We had more important things to look for.  We looked anxiously up at the sky, wondering if a jet would spontaneously explode and confetti our lives all over again.  And then we looked around at everyone at the airport to see if we could locate the responsible party.

The discomfort at the gate was palpable as we averted each other’s eyes and cautiously took private inventory of who else was on our flight.  Each traveler suddenly represented a potential key or impasse to our own survival. A mental list (by descending order) of suspicion was made by and about each other.  Just how much of a threat could that person be to our getting from point A to point B in one piece, we all wondered?  I know I did.  I scanned the faces and looked for deceptive smiles or darting eyes. 

Surely terrorists don’t want to go to Muskogee, I assured  myself.

The man I felt most unease about fit a profile I didn’t want to believe existed in my mind.  I had lived in Egypt for chrissake, and here I was imagining the worst about someone whom I knew nothing about,  all because he resembled the face of a 21st century terrorist as portrayed by the media and our fearless leader.  That he looked like millions of people I had once chosen to live among never entered my mind on that autumn day.  He made me uneasy.  I felt nervous.

And then my name was announced for a random increased security check that involved more questions and another thorough examination of my carryon, computer case and purse.

Nobody on that flight looked at me the same way again.                              

It is ten years later.  Getting undressed is almost as much a part of flying today as all the other inconveniences and humiliation that air travel has become.  I have been x-rayed and air-blown so many times that I can barely remember a time when I was not.  Different machines in different cities, new and “improved” versions of the same, I have discovered that some are far more sensitive (effective?) than others.  I have one piece of jewelry that consistently triggers a search through my entire bag and another that constantly forced me to walk through the metal detectors a second or third time, so that I no longer bother to wear it at all.  Those Cartier bracelets are dangerous, I tell you.

Now we’re down to old-fashioned groping and I wonder why it took ten years to arrive at this kind of “intelligence” and “security” and to what benefit.   All this money on technology and a decade into it, we’ve come down to the old-fashioned (near) strip search, looking to see if we have ants in our pants attached to a bomb.  The method itself doesn’t really matter - it’s the education/knowledge of the people who administer these techniques.  If you want to know what real safety or fear is like , go to Israel, where you will be made to feel guilty for what you ate for breakfast three days earlier or anything else they decide they have the right to ask or know before you get on a plane or enter their country.

They’ll never lay a hand on you, unless they need to. 



The cost of human life seems to only get measured in lawsuits or by insurance policies.  The government pays TSA agents anywhere between $10 and $15 an hour to keep us “safe” when we fly. I can only imagine how much "training" they get to protect us from ourselves and each other.

If that’s what we’re worth, our lives are in the wrong hands.


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Nothing to add to this, cartouche - you have said it so well for the rest of us. Me. I'm just going to stay home.
I agree with 60. This has almost gotten to the Keystone Cops method.Wait , maybe it has..
rated with hugs
I'm with've said it all.
They should be paid more and trained very well. I approve of increased security at airports. I don't agree with profiling. Everyone needs to be treated the same. People forget that the Oklahoma City Bombing was perpetrated by a young white man. It feels rough and it is, but terrorism is real. I'd rather be frisked, than blown up.
Husband believes this is part of us losing our citizen rights. Maybe he is right. I could see this "terrorism threat" used to shore up a dictatorship. I hope this is not the case.
I also miss the days of my family walking with me to the gate and seeing little kids smush their faces on the windows watching the planes. It will not be the same.
You said it. I hate that I spent a nervous flight home from Paris seated next to a silent Middle Eastern gentleman, glancing over at him every time he moved, then getting pissed at myself for profiling.
I have my ticket to fly to the west coast in December. I don't know what extra cost will be added on or what searches will be done. It's just scary. I usually wear a dress or something nice to go home. Not this time.
I wrote about this and didn't publish a while back. I figured I'd be chased off the page by security lovin' folk who would welcome the air blowing, wanding, xraying, and groping - thinking this would actually prevent another catastrophic explosion. I expect C4 sniffing dogs would be more effective than the 12$/hr TSA staff, who tend to alternately overdo and underdo their jobs, depending on their mood or how close it is to break time. Not to minimize, but they don't make me feel safer, my underwire bra could be anything, couldn't it...
I'll be flying Tuesday and Sunday of next week. To say I'm dreading it is an understatement. Thanks for articulating all of this so well.

The ending of the movie "Love Actually" shows scenes of various people getting off planes and being reunited with loved ones. It's really very touching, moreso because it can't happen that way anymore.
The entire thing is sickening and stupid and I wish people wouldn't stand for it. That photograph you posted says it all...just the absolute idiocy of this - a pleasant looking senior man...having his pants wanded. It's been a long time since my husband and I have flown(although our daughters have) and I just can't imagine going through this obediently. We've already decided that, if in the future, we're fortunate enough to travel, if we're in the U.S. we will drive.
I'm going to post a youtube which is funny yet sarcastic in its realism.
It is made to show us what the rest of the world thinks of us.
As usualy, we are being bullshitted by the government into telling us how "safe" we are when there are almost no internal threats except those from the government itself.
You can be certain that we will be seing an evention(invented invent) by the US government to counteract the protests of the sexaul assaulting at airports.

To see how the rest of the relatively free workd sees us~~

The cynical side of me has to wonder if utter long-term humiliation and bowing down to stupidity was the ultimate goal of the 9/11 masterminds. Why should they settle for just blowing things up, when they get the cheap thrills bonus of slowly destroying the travel industry and many other businesses that benefit from it?

This latest escalation in airport security has gone too far. I'm in no hurry to fly anytime soon. I'd rather take the train anyway, even though that's not perfect. At least the seats are comfortable, you can get up and walk around, and the dining car food is generally pretty good.
Muskogee has an airport? I bet they park the planes on their front lawns like everything else. (Scarred by many visits there).

I wouldn't have a problem with airport security if it actually made us safe. Like most other things, we are very childlike and subservient when it comes to terrorism. The enforcers know it's a charade and are waiting for you to challenge them on the obvious idiocy in the name of "safety". There is no saving us from ourselves.
I, personally, am waiting with bated breath for high speed rail. What am I saying? They'll need security for that, too.
In August we rode the train from Ann Arbor to Chicago-guess what?
That seems a bit ridiculous when you realize that Amtrak is government run! WTF?
This is the 21st century version of "papers please." The terrorists have won.
I prefer the virtual nudity to the feeling up by someone I never even had a dinner with. But the truth is, we are always one step behind in surveillance, rather than thinking ahead and using our heads. That's been our problem all along.
You hit the nail on the head!

Very good, Cartouche. The hysteria around air travel would be amusing for how ludicrous it is if we weren't all made to play the little game. The fact that 9/11 was totally preventable if the airline lobby hadn't made the false case that they couldn't afford air marshals after the wave of Cuba hijackings in the '70's is never mentioned.

I know I wasn't supposed to ask but you actually went to Oklahoma on purpose?
Well stated (as usual) Patricia.
"Surely terrorists don’t want to go to Muskogee,"
Much like with our absurd color-coded security alert system, government officials will be loath to do anything that may be perceived as weakening our "security." No one wants to be the person who lowered the color level to "Blue" (the code color for "fuck it. let them all board. pour me another one.") in case a terrorist's fake appendix explodes.

An aside -- I admire how the general American population is raising its voice against having their genitals groped, but it's perfectly fine to attached electrodes to other peoples' privates.

cartouche, you had nothing to fear. Terrorists don't want to go to Muskogee. No one wants to go to Muskogee. "Muskogee" comes from the local Native American tongue, meaning "I don't want to be here."
Penn Jillette takes along a copy of the Bill of Rights engraved on a piece of metal each time he flies. When it shows on the x-ray, he takes it out, hands it to the TSA people and says, "Here, take my rights away."
Air travel will never be the same again. In a way, it is an age of innocence that we've lost.
Airport security, an illusion at best, has taken what little fun there ever was out of flying. And I agree with Lea. What we should be doing is paying people to think like a terrorist trying to get around our so-called TSA agents. Only that will allow us to get a step ahead.

I flew cross country continually through the whole 9/11 high alert stuff, it was a bit unnerving. I don't feel these new measures keep us "safe" and are too intrusive.
"Gone were the gate-side joyous reunions and romantic, kiss-filled, tearful goodbyes. " That's the point and I've never heard it said better.

As to why it's happening? I fear for the worst. And that it has nothing to do with the government---that it is an engineered effort to privatize the TSA.
They can undress or grope me all they want as long as they stick some 10's in my undies. I'm wondering......

Great post lady. ~r
@Harry: To clarify, I flew to Oklahoma City and then rented a car to drive to Muskogee. So I was in fact "headed" to Muskogee when I arrived at the airport.
I also pack with much more of an eye to the aesthetics, knowing that my bag will likely be opened.
I read some place that the odds of being involved in ANY terrorist incident is 10+ million to 1. By contrast, the odds of being struck by lightning is about 1 in 500,000.

I see no point in letting some cretin weatherman grope me to keep me safe from lighting, so I sure as hell see no point in letting some cretin TSA guard grope me to keep me safe from terrorism.
Evocative essay, Cartouche. I"m going to jump off from Bonnie Russell's comment and ask if anyone knows the actual number of security threats that have been caught/averted. Also I'd like to know what category these threats fall into: make up; shoes; bras..etc
I'm not denying the need for security. I'd just like to know how effective it is in its current form.
As others have pointed out, is it really security or the perception of security? What happens when the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) finds out that explosives can be concealed in body cavities? Then the searches really become interesting...
I'm flying to London tomorrow. The only part I am dreading is security. You have expressed my feelings here so well. I miss the good old days, yet I understand everyone's anxiety all the way around on this issue. Sad. They won, didn't they?
This the perpetual quandary between freedom and security, and if the polls (to say nothing of our most recent election) are any measure, the people have spoken -- they will surrender almost anything for the promise (almost always false) of security.

The irony, of course, is that these people are in far more danger driving to the airport than flying on that plane. That may be a cliche, but that doesn't make it any less true.
This is a terrific piece.
"Gone were the gate-side joyous reunions and romantic, kiss-filled, tearful goodbyes." Those were the days...~r
it's all theatre, a gigantic propaganda show that feeds as much paranoia as it alleviates, boondoggle for the security-industrial complex, something for politicians to point to crying "don't blame us, we did everything we could" the inevitable next time
The Turrruurrisssttsss Won- plain and simple. They knew the USA very well, and they took us down. I will never forget walking through Ground Zero after the towers went down ... residue of all modern life attaching itself to my shoes and trousers while my brain thinks it has finally realized what being in London felt like in the 40's.

They won, they changed my life. All the country and globe hopping, the fun of it, leaving rental cars in front of the terminal and sprinting to make a flight, having the whole thing be one big jet setting party- OVER. They won, I quit that gig, no fun after that.

Cheney and Bush are imbecilic inept chickenhaws. They ruined our life- hired minimum wage recent immigrants to work Airport Security for the TSA- instead of all the PROFESSIONAL ex-military and ex-law enforcement retirees out there, so many of whom were patriotic in the good way and would have come back to Duty for Country, using their decades of experience with bad guys to rout them out, El Al style- but no, that would have cost too much! That is what they said!!! NOW THIS!!!!!

I'm off to Fiji ...
I will continue to protest this charade until they do the same kind of close inspection on the baggage that flys beneath me. Its all cheap theatre to support buying overpriced machines made in Malaysia (Malaysia cor chriss' sake!) by a company owned by Michael Chertoff.
"all because he resembled the face of a 21st century terrorist as portrayed by the media and our fearless leader. "

I believe it was the 19 Hijackers from Saudi Arabia who gave us the face of terrorism. Unapologetically so.

And Israel does have the best Airline security. Why did we have to reinvent the wheel in the U.S? As for me: no more flying. We'll be driving to our destinations and the airlines will suffer once again. It's unfortunate.
An important post. Despite the fact that the current hot button issue is security checkpoint methods, for me, the part about the difference in how you felt travelling in a post 9/11 world was so astute and perfectly described, that alone could have been a short piece. Thanks for putting those feelings of fear and unfonded suspicion so well into words. R.
Ok, I'm for civil liberties as much as the next guy. Probably even more. But consider this: What happens when we get rid of the TSA, go back to the way things were, or just ramp it down, and some asshole thinks outside the box and brings down a plane despite all of our security measures?

Are we ok with the understanding that sadly, it's going to happen again. No matter what we do. It's extremely unlikely to happen to you, specifically, on any specific flight. Statistics are cold comfort to a plane load of families not to mention screaming politicians whose districts happen to contain scanner factories.

It may be a colossal waste of time and money, and by giving up our rights and freedoms and by the wasting of that money the terrorists do more damage (over time, in dollars, not lives) than they did on 9/11.

Also, remember 75 years ago flying was a miracle. You want to go from Chicago to LA? A week on a train. 200 years ago? 6 months on a wagon. We take the absolute amazingness of being able to fly (fly!) somewhere for granted.

Yes the lines suck. Some people were assholes and the rest of us are stuck paying the price.
i always enjoy your musings, patricia, even if i simply can't relate to going to muskogee. hmmm. going through security just doesn't get me too exercised - went through the body scanner in denver because i'd lost my driver's license and didn't see the observer's eyebrows go up. maybe if i were 25 instead of 60? i'm with you and lea about israeli security. too bad we have 80 million more people going through airports here than they do in israel or it might work here, too.
I miss those reunions at the gate, too. Well said.
My first flight was 3 weeks after. I remember the shock and the fear of seeing the fully armed military perseonnal patrolling inside and outside the airport. They still do in some places. That's when I kne life had changed forever in the US of A.
Great article - I have often thought about all the money that is being spent on pseudo-safety and then get angry at the waste. rated
The title of this post is so amusing: "Groping" + "Behind." You are brilliant!
I rarely agree with George Will, but his latest essay dubbed what goes on at airports now "Security Theater," doing everything to annoy the innocent and virtually nothing to deter the guilty. (Though it's been so long since anyone has groped my junk that I might actually look forward to flying.)

BTW, doesn't it alarm you that you and Blumenthal wrote about the same subject on the same day?
As a road warrior, I found your piece pitch perfect. It captures the darting-eye fear hidden below the current traveler's enormous discomfort.

There's no better argument for the building of transcon high-speed rail.

Well done.

Imagine. Getting paid $10 an hour to fondle genetalia for eight hours a day. I don't think that I would want to know that person.
I can hardly wait for the first terrorist to smuggle some C4 in his butt. "We're sorry, you must have a colonoscopy to board all flights".
I was already staying home, but this would definitely make me think twice about heading off. Until cargo is inspected with the same intensity...I'll call this "security theater."
Cartouche: I didn't fly until several months after 9/11, by which time people had calmed down somewhat. But I've no doubt the general mood was every bit as paranoid as you make it sound. I particularly liked the line about how you started to suspect yourself! Free-floating guilt and national emergencies are a bitch of a combination. R.