Body scanners? Pat-downs? Sooo last week

Now that "opt-out day" has fizzled, is that the end of the story? Plus: Got a question about TSA protocols?

Published December 1, 2010 1:31AM (EST)

A TSA official holds a bag of liquids and gels at Washington's Reagan National Airport.
A TSA official holds a bag of liquids and gels at Washington's Reagan National Airport.

So, national "opt-out day" came and went, having caused hardly a ripple. No surprise, really. And just like that, one of the year's biggest and most important stories has suddenly vanished from the airwaves. Body scanners? Pat-downs? That is, like, so last week. TSA (and the terrorists) wins.

Really, I swear, we are almost done talking about airport security. (This column needs a laugh track at times.) Just hang with me and help me get through these few loose ends.

Having spent the past two weeks hashing out the more serious stuff, here are some random musings on TSA madness, just off the top of my head:

Please explain the logic of why passengers cannot carry a 10-ounce bottle of liquid through the checkpoint, yet five or more 3-ounce containers is no problem. Contact lens solution, any size, that's OK too. And baby formula, no restrictions.

I never realized terrorists were that stupid. It's funny, but not really, how on one hand we give our enemies all the credit in the world. The invasive patting down of the elderly and infirm, for example. Yet we hardly hesitate in offering up the most obvious loopholes imaginable.

Just to reiterate from last time: An airline pilot who once flew bombers armed with nuclear weapons is not to be trusted, and is marched through the metal detectors before every flight, just like passengers. But those workers who cater the galleys, sling the suitcases and sweep out the aisles can amble through a turnstile unmolested?

That's not to imply that caterers, baggage handlers, cabin cleaners and the rest of the exempted ground workers are dangerous. Nevertheless, this is a double standard so staggeringly audacious that it can hardly be believed. TSA actually looks us in the eye and tells us that pilots "need" to be screened -- as it waives regular screening for tarmac workers. How can anybody take this agency seriously? And why has the media consistently ignored this made-to-order scandal?

True story: I'm traveling off-duty one day. I've got a 4-ounce tube of toothpaste in my bag that is obviously less than half-full. Take a guess where the tube ends up.

A few weeks later the same thing happens, this time with a tube that is almost completely empty. There is something hopelessly wrong with a system that preoccupies itself with minutiae at the complete expense of reason. I am fairly sure that it's something less than a security risk to allow TSA screeners to make the occasional judgment call and perform simple arithmetic.

A month ago I was going through security at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. They took a miniature pair of round-tipped scissors from my toiletries bag and wouldn't give it back. Americans, maybe, aren't the only ones out of their minds.

Still, we take first prize. If ever I'm unsure, I need only to have another look at this photo.  This one little picture, through such neat and hilarious economy, wonderfully encapsulates the dementia of our current security culture. Some day in the future, Americans will be looking back at such artifacts. What will they think? If this country has any future, they'll be judging us harshly.

So it appears that many TSA rules are contradictory, even incoherent. Are they? Is there something we don't know? I would love to sit down with TSA chief John Pistole and try to find out. But since Mr. Pistole's office will not respond to my inquiries, how about the next best thing -- maybe, even, the more useful thing: Let's talk to a TSA screener. Said screener, whom we'll call "Marty," works at a busy international airport and has agreed to an interview.

Better still, let's open up the floor. If you've got a nagging question about TSA protocols, send it my way. I'll pick the most cogent and thoughtful questions and add them to the pile. (Twenty words or fewer, please, and the deadline is Friday, Dec. 3.) Marty's responses will be published in this space next week.

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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