Testing the TSA with Titanium Man


Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I have been covertly testing airport security since early 2002. I file no reports and the only notes I take are mental. I am the person that knows when the airport has security holes and still boards the plane. I am titanium man.

OK, enough of the dramatic science fiction; the truth is stranger. I have a few replacement parts installed in my body. Both my right and left humerus are constructed of titanium pins and plates with a number of screws in each arm and my right tibia has a full titanium core with a number of screws to fix it to my ankle and up by my knee. The details of how they all got there would be book length. The short version is that in early 2002 I had to get around in a wheel chair for a while, learn to walk, write, dress myself, eat, cook, all over again. It was an odd rebirth with metal ersatz bones to keep me all together. Unable to use my arms for much at the time due to their reconstruction, I managed to get around by dragging my left foot against the ground to propel the wheelchair. It was much like skateboarding when you get enough momentum to get from place to place.

Oddly enough, one of the first things I did after 4 months in a skilled nursing facility was fly to Canada. At the airport I first noticed how little security there was for me, despite the increased vigilance resulting from 9-11. I was 'wanded' in my wheelchair and of course beeped when wanded on my arms and right leg. After a brief visual inspection, I was simply pushed on by security. At the time, there was no security check of my wheelchair and I could have brought anything stashed in my chair or thick seat cushion. I felt sick being simply pushed by security as I watched a grandmother get special scrutiny. Flying wheelchair bound opened my eyes to the oddities of airport security.

I (re)learned to walk a bit later and was a happy boy when the insurance company knocked on my door to repossess my Quickie brand chair, an awesome piece of equipment I must admit. Then I flew, again and again, and noticed at many airports the same trend: massive inconsistency and the reliance on devices to make us feel safe.

Simply put: I carry enough titanium in with me to set off most metal detectors, unless their settings are on low. Therein lies the truth that I see every time I fly: The security system in the aviation world was, is, and will always be a sham to a certain extent. There are way too many holes to call it secure.

Why are metal detectors manufactured with settings of low, mid, and high? Shouldn't there just be one setting? I flew last week and the metal detectors at both Pittsburgh and Boston were set to low. When they are, I most often walk on through with no problem. This summer in Albany, I set the detector off and got a very thorough secondary screening. I don't mind being wanded and having my limbs touched for security purposes. I admit, almost all of the time it is done in a professional and dignified way by the TSA agents.

At many airports on most days there is a low security concern and the rules are lax. I skip through unnoticed and board my plane. When there is a real terror concern, however, I start to beep. If the airport has a specific threat like when I was in Munich last year, I beep and get some sort of secondary screening. In Munich I had a nice chat (and a thorough wanding) with a gentleman who was clearly not a standard security checkpoint screener. He asked behavioral type questions and I think he was concerned that I could conduct the interview in German. (Apparently, being an American who speaks a language with a degree of competency is a red flag.)

These days are good. I go through security, set off an alarm, am treated with caution and respect and get to go home with a real sense that someone is paying attention. I worry most when I get through secondary screenings without a second glance. 7 times (2 alone at the Dayton airport) the batteries of the hand wands were low or empty and therefore didn't go off during my secondary screening. Once I think the device was not even turned on as the green light wasn't lit. The TSA agent simply waved it over me as a rote motion, and then told me to be on my way. I stood there the first time in disbelief as I know how much metal I have on me and I know how those wands go off when they get near me.

Of course, I also know what happens if I say something and alert the security to their "problem". The airport gets shut down, the gates are cleared and we all go through it again because some TSA agent forgot to charge the batteries or turn the thing on. So I just go to my gate and get on the plane. Perhaps it is irresponsible, but I have seen all of the airport security holes and know that terrorists are not stopped at the security checkpoint by the system we have created. That is my reality and my perception. It may be somewhat flawed, but I am not alone in this viewpoint.

And now we have backscatter technology to fix the holes. It is humorous to me that this is the device that causes the most outrage us because it exposes us physically. I don't personally mind if some TSA agent in a back room sees the size of my schnitzel. My issue with the scanners is that it is more of the same bullshit heaped upon the existing pile of bullshit we already take for a security system. Shoes, liquids, printer toner, nail clippers, whathaveyou. All are smoke screens to have us not ask the harder questions about issues of what actually makes us secure. It is that general feeling that we are not doing security in the right way and that in itself makes us feel insecure.

This insecurity logically leads to questions about the process. Now, something has changed for the worse. You are punished for refusing a specific device. The 'thorough pat-down' recently introduced is the TSA's method of quelling dissent by subjecting flyers to an invasive and undignified physical search. It is the spanking for simply questioning the veracity of the process. We ask, "Will the photos be stored?" The answer, "not possible, of course not." The geeks know differently. They probably programmed the machine and so we cry foul. Why are the geeks the ones who cry the hardest? Because we are inherently people of science and ultimately we know the limits of technology. We are the ones who understand that these new devices are no solution to our problems, but are most likely simple the new panacea, brought to us by a new lobbyist until the next great machine comes along. We know this because we have bought smaller versions of these devices all these years thinking that this device was 'it'. Was I the only person with a Sony Clié?

So pat me down, wand me, find my metal, but do it in a dignified way. Don't expect me to believe that this new device will find everything or that a groping will find things either. And please replace or charge the batteries in the hand wands. If you are so worried about touching us intimately and seeing us naked, you might miss the obvious.