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Edward Kelly October 21st, 2008 02:21 PM

The Things He Carried

Airport security in America is a sham—“security theater” designed to
make travelers feel better and catch stupid terrorists. Smart ones can
get through security with fake boarding passes and all manner of
prohibited items—as our correspondent did with ease.

by Jeffrey Goldberg

If I were a terrorist, and I’m not, but if I were a terrorist—a frosty,
tough-like-Chuck-Norris terrorist, say a C-title jihadist with Hezbollah
or, more likely, a donkey-work operative with the Judean People’s
Front—I would not do what I did in the bathroom of the Minneapolis–St.
Paul International Airport, which was to place myself in front of a sink
in open view of the male American flying public and ostentatiously rip
up a sheaf of counterfeit boarding passes that had been created for me
by a frenetic and acerbic security expert named Bruce Schnei*er. He had
made these boarding passes in his sophisticated underground forgery
works, which consists of a Sony Vaio laptop and an HP LaserJet printer,
in order to prove that the Transportation Security Administration, which
is meant to protect American aviation from al-Qaeda, represents an
egregious waste of tax dollars, dollars that could otherwise be used to
catch terrorists before they arrive at the Minneapolis–St. Paul
International Airport, by which time it is, generally speaking, too late.

I could have ripped up these counterfeit boarding passes in the privacy
of a toilet stall, but I chose not to, partly because this was the
renowned Senator Larry Craig Memorial Wide-Stance Bathroom, and since
the commencement of the Global War on Terror this particular bathroom
has been patrolled by security officials trying to protect it from gay
sex, and partly because I wanted to see whether my fellow passengers
would report me to the TSA for acting suspiciously in a public bathroom.
No one did, thus thwarting, yet again, my plans to get arrested, or at
least be the recipient of a thorough sweating by the FBI, for dubious
behavior in a large American airport. Suspicious that the measures put
in place after the attacks of September 11 to prevent further such
attacks are almost entirely for show—security theater is the term of
art—I have for some time now been testing, in modest ways, their
effectiveness. Because the TSA’s security regimen seems to be mainly
thing-based—most of its 44,500 airport officers are assigned to truffle
through carry-on bags for things like guns, bombs, three-ounce tubes of
anthrax, Crest toothpaste, nail clippers, Snapple, and so on—I focused
my efforts on bringing bad things through security in many different
airports, primarily my home airport, Washington’s Reagan National, the
one situated approximately 17 feet from the Pentagon, but also in Los
Angeles, New York, Miami, Chicago, and at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton
International Airport (which is where I came closest to arousing at
least a modest level of suspicion, receiving a symbolic pat-down—all
frisks that avoid the sensitive regions are by definition symbolic—and
one question about the presence of a Leatherman Multi-Tool in my pocket;
said Leatherman was confiscated and is now, I hope, living with the
loving family of a TSA employee). And because I have a fair amount of
experience reporting on terrorists, and because terrorist groups produce
large quantities of branded knickknacks, I’ve amassed an inspiring
collection of al-Qaeda T-shirts, Islamic Jihad flags, Hezbollah
videotapes, and inflatable Yasir Arafat dolls (really). All these things
I’ve carried with me through airports across the country. I’ve also
carried, at various times: pocketknives, matches from hotels in Beirut
and Peshawar, dust masks, lengths of rope, cigarette lighters, nail
clippers, eight-ounce tubes of toothpaste (in my front pocket), bottles
of Fiji Water (which is foreign), and, of course, box cutters. I was
selected for secondary screening four times—out of dozens of passages
through security checkpoints—during this extended experiment. At one
screening, I was relieved of a pair of nail clippers; during another, a
can of shaving cream.

During one secondary inspection, at O’Hare International Airport in
Chicago, I was wearing under my shirt a spectacular, only-in-America
device called a “Beerbelly,” a neoprene sling that holds a polyurethane
bladder and drinking tube. The Beerbelly, designed originally to sneak
alcohol—up to 80 ounces—into football games, can quite obviously be used
to sneak up to 80 ounces of liquid through airport security. (The
company that manufactures the Beerbelly also makes something called a
“Winerack,” a bra that holds up to 25 ounces of booze and is
recommended, according to the company’s Web site, for PTA meetings.) My
Beerbelly, which fit comfortably over my beer belly, contained two cans’
worth of Bud Light at the time of the inspection. It went undetected.
The eight-ounce bottle of water in my carry-on bag, however, was seized
by the federal government.

On another occasion, at LaGuardia, in New York, the
transportation-security officer in charge of my secondary screening
emptied my carry-on bag of nearly everything it contained, including a
yellow, three-foot-by-four-foot Hezbollah flag, purchased at a Hezbollah
gift shop in south Lebanon. The flag features, as its charming main
image, an upraised fist clutching an AK-47 automatic rifle. Atop the
rifle is a line of Arabic writing that reads Then surely the party of
God are they who will be triumphant. The officer took the flag and
spread it out on the inspection table. She finished her inspection, gave
me back my flag, and told me I could go. I said, “That’s a Hezbollah
flag.” She said, “Uh-huh.” Not “Uh-huh, I’ve been trained to recognize
the symbols of anti-American terror groups, but after careful inspection
of your physical person, your behavior, and your last name, I’ve come to
the conclusion that you are not a Bekaa Valley–trained threat to the
United States commercial aviation system,” but “Uh-huh, I’m going on
break, why are you talking to me?”

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