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Random acts of security

When I was in my 20s in the 1970s, I spent a lot of time criss-crossing the US by car. One of the great things about it, as I said to a friend last week, was the feeling of ownership that gave me wherever I was: waking up under the giant blue sky in Albuquerque, following the Red River from Fargo to Grand Forks, or heading down the last, dull hour of New York State Thruway to my actual home, Ithaca, NY, it was all part of my personal backyard. This, I thought many times, is my country!

This year's movie (and last year's novel) Up in the Air highlighted the fact that the world's most frequent flyers feel the same way about airports. When you've traversed the same airports so many times that you've developed a routine it's hard not to feel as smug as George Clooney's character when some disorganized person forgets to take off her watch before going through the metal detector. You, practiced and expert, slide through smoothly without missing a beat. The check-in desk staff and airline club personnel ask how you've been. You sit in your familiar seat on the plane. You even know the exact moment in the staff routine to wander back to the galley and ask for a mid-flight cup of tea.

Your enemy in this comfortable world is airport security, which introduces each flight by putting you back in your place as an interloper.

Our equivalent back then was the Canadian border, which we crossed in quite isolated places sometimes. The border highlighted a basic fact of human life: people get bored. At the border crossing between Grand Forks, ND and Winnipeg, Manitoba, for example, the guards would keep you talking until the next car hove into view. Sometimes that was one minute, sometimes 15.

We - other professional travelers and I - had a few other observations. If you give people a shiny, new toy they will use it, just for the novelty. One day when I drove through Lewiston-Queenston they had drug-sniffing dogs on hand to run through and around the cars stopped for secondary screening. Fun! I was coming back from a folk festival in a pickup truck with a camper on the back, so of course I was pulled over. Duh: what professional traveler who crosses the border 12 times a year risks having drugs in their car?

Cut to about a week ago, at Memphis airport. It was 10am on a Saturday, and the traffic approaching the security checkpoint was very thin. The whole body image scanners - expensive, new, the latest in cover-your-ass-ness - are in theory only for secondary screening: you go through them if you alarm the metal detectors or are randomly selected.

How does that work? When there's little traffic everyone goes through the scanner. For the record, I opted out and was given an absolutely professional and courteous pat-down, in contrast to the groping reports in the media for the last month. Yes: felt around under my waistband and hairline. No: groping. You've got to love the Net's many charming inhabitants: when I posted this report to a frequent flyer forum a poster hazarded that I was probably old and ugly.

My own theory is simply that it was early in the day, and everyone was rested and fresh and hadn't been sworn at a whole lot yet. So no one was feeling stressed out or put-upon by a load of uppity, obnoxious passengers.

It seems clear, however, that if you wanted to navigate security successfully carrying items that are typically unwanted on a flight, your strategy for reducing the odds of attracting extra scrutiny would be fairly simple, although the exact opposite of what experienced (professional) travelers are in the habit of doing:

- Choose a time when it's extremely crowded. Scanners are slower than metal detectors, so the more people there are the smaller the percentage going through them. (Or study the latest in scanner-defeating explosives fashions.)

- Be average and nondescript, someone people don't notice particularly or feel disposed to harass when they're in a bad mood. Don't be a cute, hot young woman; don't be a big, fat, hulking guy; don't wear clothes that draw the eye: expensive designer fashions, underwear, Speedos, a nun's habit (who knows what that could hide? and anyway isn't prurient curiosity about what could be under there a thing?).

- Don't look rich, powerful, special, or attitudinous. The TSA is like a giant replication of Stanley Milgram's experiment. Who's the most fun to roll over? The business mogul or the guy just like you who works in a call center? The guy with the video crew spoiling for a fight, or the guy who treats you like a servant? The sexy young woman who spurned you in high school or the crabby older woman like your mean second-grade teacher? Or the wheelchair-bound or medically challenged who just plain make you uncomfortable?

- When you get in line, make sure you're behind one or more of the above eye-catching passengers.

Note to TSA: you think the terrorists can't figure this stuff out, too? The terrorist will be the last guy your agents will pick for closer scrutiny.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.


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