“The beauty of an airport is in the splendor of wide open spaces. An airport should be naked.”
-The architect Le Corbusier, 1930, on the future of airport design.
It’s early 2010, and I’m slumped in a seat in a cramped training room at O’Hare airport, with a sinking feeling building in my gut, so heavy it feels as though it will pull me down into the lower level, down through the airport’s subterranean maintenance tunnels, lower still, into the debris-filled marshlands over which the airport was originally built. Just a few months prior, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had attempted to take down an aircraft with an underwear bomb on Christmas day, so we’re all being trained to put people in x-ray machines, now. The suits are laying the propaganda on thick about it all, which is why the sinking feeling— propaganda makes me nauseous.
The world will be safer if everyone just gets in this machine. They’re the only option, now.
Everything we do is for the victims of 9/11.
All of our officers will, of course, view the nude images with the utmost professionalism. The good, thinking American— the one with nothing to hide— will have no problem with getting in this machine, but—
“—I’m sure you’ll find that a lot of the general public won’t like it. They’ll be squeamish about the radiation, about being viewed naked. Well, the sad fact is, we can’t trust the general public, anymore.”
Our training instructor has a habit of shrugging his shoulders at the end of sentences, as though absolving himself of responsibility for pronouncements made.
Next to me, thumb tacked to the wall is a large piece of construction paper with writing in bubbly black marker that looks like this:
September 11—————————>Formation of TSA
Richard Reid Shoe Bomb Plot———–>All passengers must remove shoes
U.K. Liquids Plot———————–>Liquids ban
Underwear Plot————————>Full body scanning
As usual, it seems as though the class sees nothing intrinsically wrong with this. As though this chart of cause and effect is unfurling with perfectly logical precision, just waiting for another piece of construction paper to be taped beneath it in addendum at some even more absurd point in the future:
Printer Cartridge Plot*————>Printer cartridge restriction
Inevitable Body Cavity Bomber—-> Random Cavity Searches
Giant House Bomb Plot————> Restriction on Closed Curtains
Telepathy Bomb Plot—————> Psychic Team Roll Out
(One thing I can’t stand is the conspiracy theory type; those paranoid, melodramatic souls who find descents into totalitarianism in every other highway billboard; a looming reprise of the worst of the 20th century’s regimes in every speeding ticket. But you begin to wonder if maybe they’re not all so far off the mark, working for this agency— there’s just no way around it.)
“…it’s not like this over in Europe, you know,” the instructor continues, “in Europe, nobody minds giving up their nude images in return for a big heaping pile of safety. It’s only in America that people get all up in arms. When you get irate passengers out there, people, just remember: flying is a privilege, not a right. “
The class blooms into a field of nodding heads.
“Now, if there are no more questions, I guess I’ll just congratulate you on being Full Body certified. Oh, one last thing: we’ve been getting a lot of enhanced pat down calls from officers mistaking men’s testicles for bombs. Now, I know there are a lot of different types of genitalia in the world, but please, try to be reasonable, people. Don’t look for threats where there aren’t any. OK?”
One hand springs up—a girl, no older than 18, jaw vigorously working a piece of gum.
“What about if a passenger shoves explosives up their— excuse me, but— ass? We ain’t gonna’ be able to detect that now, are we? Bombs up their ass?”
The class titters. The instructor holds up a hand and smiles. He’s heard this a million times.
“The folks in D.C. know what they’re doing, and of course, they’ve thought of this. Believe me, if there was actionable intelligence on a…cavity threat…they would know about it. And we would get the orders to do whatever was necessary to neutralize that threat, just as soon as it sprang up. D.C. is just on top of it, like that.”
A kind of deferential silence falls over the class at the mention of “D.C.”— always an unquestioning reverence for headquarters with most of my co-workers.
We can’t trust the general public.
It was the general public that stopped the underwear bomber, and nearly every other thwarted terrorist attempt over the past 9 years, for that matter. Maybe it was the general public who shouldn’t trust us. I wanted to raise my hand and say that, but a thing like that could get a screener marked.
“Well then, alright,” the instructor concludes, hands clasped. “I think we all know what a crotch looks like. Now let’s get out there, and perform.”
Thousands of kids fresh out of high school with minimal training were being granted the power to put people into radiation machines and view their nude images; the descendants of entire generations of boys let down by empty comic-book promises of x-ray spec vision finally scoring— and, of course, all of it was feather-light on the benefit side of the cost-benefit scales. It seemed to me that it was the beginning of yet another soul-stiflingly dumb thing at the airport. I would turn out to be right.
Sitting in that training room that day, I realized I would have no choice but to continue doing what I’d been doing for the past several years, just to get through the days:
Pretending that my job was a matter of national security.
*Actual restriction on printer cartridges would come later that year.