Before the mid-term elections when Democrats swept into Congress, there was a vogue among pollsters and political insiders for a voting block called “Security Moms,” women worried about the safety of their families who could be convinced to vote for President George Bush, who as a wartime president would protect the nation from terrorists and evildoers.
There’s not so much chat about that particular voting block anymore. It’s assumed that women have returned to the Democratic fold because the party triumphed in November.
But reminders that “homeland security” is tenuous remain strong for any woman who ventures on an airplane in these opening days of the Global War on Terror. It’s women who travel with infants and small children, more than men, supervising the on and off of shoes, and the jackets and toys that need to be put through x-ray machines. It’s the mothers of infants who need – bleary-eyed though they may be – to learn the rules about taking breast milk on a plane. And the expectations of how women doing business need to appear – make-up, neatly dressed hair, reasonably fashionable attire – mean women travelers will carry more of those banned gels and liquids, not to mention metal-shanked shoes, gun-shaped hair-dryers and small scissors. Working or not, women attract more attention from “security” scanners. The message is clear: You girls stay home. Let us serious men attend to the business of conducting business.
Think I’m exaggerating? Take a look at first and business class check-in next time you fly. You won’t see many women. Why is this important? First and business class have expedited “security” clearance.
When the Transportation Safety Administration started confiscating cosmetics at the airport in reaction to an alarm over gel or liquid explosives, more than one cynic saw that as an attempt to add even more drama to what’s referred to as “security theater.” And if you’ve ever, as I have, watched an elderly mother try to reassure – from a safe distance, mandated by “security” requirements – her clearly terrified mentally handicapped son, urging him to take off his shoes and belt while strangers approached him with scary-looking scanners, then you know that we’re really talking about a theater of the absurd.
That incident – in Atlanta two years ago – was troubling enough. But it wasn’t until I started flying again regularly this year that I got the full dose of the confusing, contradictory and clearly mismanaged security system that’s flourishing at our airports. Whatever this is – taking off your shoes, sorting out your make-up, preparing to have your luggage and person searched – it’s not a system and it’s not by any stretch of the imagination “secure.” Through the infliction of inconsistently applied and arbitrary “rules” that are no more than the whims and caprices of individual TSA employees, we’ve created a climate of cynicism, fear and doubt that in the end makes us less secure. There’s a deep sense of mistrust of government, of our fellow travelers and citizens and an almost palpable sense of contempt for those who don’t “understand” the rules and follow them. Two years ago, it was theater of the absurd; today it’s a charade.
But we have to be prepared to play, don’t we? So, on a three-day trip to Memphis in January, I rounded up my cosmetics and put them in a one-gallon plastic bag to run through the carry-on luggage “security” screening at San Francisco International Airport. That bag of clearly marked items made it through the checkpoint. But on the way home, I was stopped, given a one-quart bag and forced to sort out contact lens solution and foundation from lipstick (now allowed!) and mascara (still not safe!). What passed in SFO failed in Memphis so there I was, sorting through my toiletries to please a woman in Tennessee while my fellow travelers waited.
On a two-day trip to Miami, I took the one-quart bag, stuffed to bursting almost. Out and back no trouble. And, at SFO, I was told that once having cleared initial screenings, my boarding pass could be tucked away. Great. One small step for travelers like me who are juggling luggage, computers, liquids and gels, shoes, overcoats and handbags as we try to make sure nothing’s missing or taken as we clear “security.” That rule, as I learned last week, however, is different at different airport check-ins.
My last trip to L.A. was the most dramatic. In L.A. and New York, appearance – for men and women – isn’t everything. It’s the only thing. And it takes work. So the travel solution is pretty obvious: Throw everything in your bag and check it. That is, it seems, what the airlines want. It’s easier for all of us.
And it was easier. I made it through “security” with my computer, shoes and carry-on with little hassle. And while I noticed that my bag had been opened when I arrived in L.A., I didn’t make much of it. You can’t lock luggage any more, of course, so I figured that the Transportation Safety Administration had probably had a look at my liquids and gels.
But they hadn’t. There was no note from TSA inside the bag as there should have been if a formal search is conducted. That wasn’t all that was missing. My jewelry – none of it terribly expensive, all of it of great sentimental value to me and only me – was gone. A thief had delicately removed it without disturbing the contents of the suitcase, undoubtedly with the help of an X-ray scanner.
This isn’t unusual. As the San Francisco Police Department informed me when I reported the theft, it “happens all the time.” That’s why you should carry your jewelry in your carry-on, they said. But, of course, jewelry has sharp edges and points that can scrape and cut. It’s often – at least mine is – made of odd material than can register funny on a scanner. I didn’t relish the idea of sorting through more of my personal belongings with another audience of frazzled fellow travelers. I checked my suitcase and I got robbed by the people who are hired to protect me from terrorists and evildoers. And, you know, if they can take stuff out of suitcase, motivated by a quick buck, don’t you wonder what they might put in, encouraged by a larger, more substantial payment?
Filing a claim for theft with an airline is a nightmare, of course. No one wants responsibility because anyone with any sense recognizes the temptation to steal is encouraged by the TSA’s rules about luggage and the confusion created by inconsistent enforcement. Travelers can’t lock their bags, the “security” search is done by TSA employees, the bags are loaded on and off the airplane by contractors working for the airline and, of course, I’m sure there are plenty of scam artists out there putting in false claims.
That’s not all, of course. Contacting TSA isn’t easy. You’re on hold forever – it does “happen all the time” – despite the agency administrator’s statements that they take theft seriously. And don’t even try talking to the airline. United Airlines gives the phrase “unresponsive arrogance” a whole new meaning. It took seven separate inquiries to discover that the airline isn’t liable for jewelry theft.
But my return home to San Francisco from Los Angeles was the best demonstration of the meaningless of this whole process.
I didn’t check my bag this time. And I hadn’t had the time or the inclination to sort through my make-up to set aside those banned liquids and gels for separate inspection as I went through the checkpoint. I just threw everything in the suitcase and carried it on the plane.
No one stopped me or searched me or questioned me about what I was carrying. Apart from the usual X-ray scan no one asked to examine my luggage more closely. The liquids and gels – foundation and lipstick, hand cream and mascara, allergy medicine aerosol, deodorant and lip balm – buried deep inside my suitcase where my jewelry once was, made it through the machine without a word or complaint from any of the “security” personnel working so hard to keep me so safe.
I’ve lost my jewelry. I’ve surrendered my privacy. And I’ve lost my temper. Would someone – please – tell me what we’ve gained?