Thursday, August 25, 2011

How TSA Has Brought Security Theatre to a Boil

The US airlines did the one thing that should have been done before 9/11 only after 9/11. They installed hardened doors between the cockpit and the rest of the plane. Everything else in American aviation "security" is pure eyewash and a waste of money and a huge burden on people an a humiliation to many. It is simply security theatre.

Here is an example from Vance Gilbert's blog. This is a letter he wrote after a humilating and expensive "incident" with TSA:
To Whom It May Concern,

My name is Vance Gilbert.

I live in Arlington, MA.

I am a homeowner, having been here 10+ years, I have a partner, and we have two 52lb Standard Poodles.

I am a 6 foot tall, bespectacled, slightly greying, 52 year old, 230 lb African-American male with a close hair cut.

On August 14, 2011, I boarded United Airlines Flight UA #3483 from Boston to Dulles on time and was seated in an isle seat #9C on an Embraer 170. I was dressed in shorts, baseball hat, t-shirt, hiking boots, and unbuttoned Jimmy Buffett Hawaiian shirt (covered with airplanes). As the door was being closed, we were told it was a full flight, meaning 70 - 80 people. I had my backpack under the seat in front of me, and my fanny pack/wallet behind my heels.

After the doors were closed the flight attendant came down the isle checking security buckling, bag clearance etc., and asked if she could put my fanny pack above me in the overhead bin. I replied to her that I'd be fine just stuffing it next to my back-pack under seat in front of me as it contained my wallet etc and that I'd rather have it near. She seemed fine with that resolution. All that was done without consternation or belligerence, and I thought nothing of it.

Now, I am a musician by trade and an amateur aviation historian, studying mostly European transport aircraft between WW1 and WW2, and some after. I was on my way to two different music festivals. When I travel I delve into reading about this era of aviation. I had taken out and was reading a book of Polish Aircraft circa 1946 and I was also looking at views of an Italian aircraft from 1921.

I think you see where this is going...

The plane went all the way out to the take-off point, in the queue for take-off. All the while I noticed a lot of phone pinging back and forth between the flight attendants. The young woman flight attendant was also crouched next to and conversing seriously to a dead-heading pilot about 4 seats up on the other side. The plane then proceeded to turn around and head all the way back to the gate. Once at the gate, the jet bridge was positioned. The Captain announced, "We have a minor issue, and we will continue our departure once it's resolved." He left the aircraft.

After about 5 - 10 minutes, 2 Mass State Policemen, 1 or 2 TSA Agents, and the bursar for the flight come down the isle and motion me to get off of the plane. I do not remember if they called me by name. We stepped out into the breezeway where one of the State policemen asked how I was doing that day.

I replied, "Sir, I think you're going to tell me I could be doing much better..."

Policeman: "Did you have a problem with your bag earlier?"

Me: "No sir, not at all. The flight attendant wanted it secured elsewhere other than behind my feet, and I opted to put it under the seat in front of me. It's my wallet, even though there's only 30 bucks in it…And all that was done without belligerence, or words for that matter…it was all good.

A few beats...

Policeman: "Sir, were you looking at a book of airplanes?"

Me: "Yes sir I was. I am a musician for money, but for fun I study old aircraft and build models of them, and the book I was reading was of Polish Aircraft from 1946."

Policeman: "Would you please go get that book so that i can see it?"

I go back onto the plane - all eyes are on me like I was a common criminal. Total humiliation part 2.

After a couple of minutes he says, "Why, this is all Snoopy Red Baron stuff..."

Me: "Yes sir, actually the triplane you see is Italian, from 1921 a little after World War 1..."

Policeman: "No problem here then, you can go on back on to the plane, sorry to inconvenience you...and have a nice flight".

We were now at least, after re-queuing, over an hour late. No one looked me in the eye, flight attendants, passengers. I missed my next connection, and had to cancel that portion of the flight (fair $ value equaling ??) and rent a car ($270) plus fuel ($30) to my work (lost 1/2 wages = $100), and I was afraid to read for the next two flights.

I silently wept the whole flight to DC. I've never been so frightened or humiliated. I'm shaking even writing this.

How much money was lost between the airline, the other travelers? - I couldn't begin to calculate.

How damaged am I from this experience? I'm not feeling particularly American. I'm angry, dumbfounded, frightened.

Would this have happened to the 30-ish Caucasian woman sitting across the aisle from me (who left her seat, water bottle, and book, never to be seen for the rest of the "completely full" flight)? Is it now against the law to be dark and read a book about historic aircraft?

What's my take-away from this experience as a taxpayer, United Airlines patron, Black Man, teacher, mentor, American? I was broken hearted and speechless as I overheard my friend's wife try to explain to her kids what happened and what he and I were talking about over dinner. They never did get why.

What do I tell your children?


What do I do now - please advise?

Please contact me at the email above

Thanks in advance,

Vance Gilbert
Arlington, MA
There was nothing in this "incident" that common sense would identify as a "threat". This was pure over-reaction and stupidity and it was fueled by racism. Not violent, aggresive, mean racism, just an "uneasiness" with "the other" that plays into the hands of security theatre. What a tragedy.

Update 2011aug27: Here is a post on the On Liberty blog at the Boston Globe newspaper.
The ACLU is always concerned about ways in which ordinary Americans get inconvenienced by "security" measures that actually make us no safer, and less free. TSA's unpopular and invasive scanners and "pat-down" searches, which began frustrating travelers at Logan and nationwide last year, are a perfect example.

Recent reports of what happened to Arlington-based musician Vance Gilbert, who was questioned after reading a book about vintage airplanes on a flight out of Boston, seems to bear out that concern. Mr. Gilbert made it past TSA scanners and screeners, but then found himself being questioned after boarding his flight. We are reposting here Mr. Gilbert's open letter to the ACLU about what he experienced. He titled it "Racial Profiling First Hand".
That this kind of petty harrassment is "invisible" reminds me of how "decent" Germans after WWII claimed they had seen nothing of the internment and massacre of Jews (and gypsies, and homosexuals, and socialists, and handicapped, etc.). Funny... millions were dispossessed and killed and nobody noticed. Americans are undergoing their own mini-"holocaust" and nobody is noticing. Amazing. (It is there to be seen, buy you have to be attentive and remember and connect the dots. Most people couldn't be bothered. Like pastor Martin Niemöller noted in WWII:
First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Update 2011sep03: Here is more material on reaction to the Vance Gilbert case. This comes from a James Fallows blog at The Atlantic and it includes his own recent run-in with obnoxious TSA heavy-handedness. Here is a bit:
In three previous installments -- first, second, and third -- readers have discussed the implications of a recent case in which a Boston-area musician, Vance Gilbert, caused an airline crew to panic and abort the departure of a plane. Gilbert is black. How much difference did that make?

This is newly on my mind because, when starting on the first leg of a long overseas trip today, I had the most unpleasant encounter in years with TSA officialdom, at Dulles Airport. (I am now at LAX, waiting for the connecting flight.TSA Officer Z*** of Dulles, I will remember you!) This encounter was a reminder that regardless of race, getting crosswise of security-officialdom can lead to a lot of trouble. It was also a reminder that asking "Why?" or "What is the reason for that?" to a uniformed official of the wrong temperament can be the first step down a path that is difficult to retrace.
Go read the James Fallows post to get all of the material including the readers' comments he has brought into the post and the links he provides to relevant materia.

As a Canadian, I found this reader comment to have the greatest resonance:
From a reader in Canada:

>>After travelling through different airports in different countries, I must say that security screens in the US are the worst, but an incident in Canada demonstrated to me how their authority can be abused. On this occasion, during a plane change in Calgary, I saw that the security services everywhere hold an inordinate amount of power that is can be abused for any of the very personal reasons a screener may hold.

It was very early morning, before the coffee shops opened. Because there were a few hours between plane change I decided to leave the secure area and get some fresh air. As I was leaving the airport a nearby coffee shop was in the process of opening, so I rushed over, and waited by the counter, to get that much needed morning coffee.

As I waited for the server to serve me, a woman wearing a security uniform, came up to the counter, stood behind me, calling out to the server, "Elsie, can I have a black coffee". The server "Elsie" gave her the coffee and I started to give my order. Then, six more security people came up behind me and each called out their order. Elsie served all of them leaving me standing there. I was annoyed but let it go thinking that they were in a rush to get to their duty stations.

After Elsie served them, I gave her my order. Elsie picked up the cup and pot to pour my coffee, when a lone straggler wearing a security uniform appeared and called out her order to Elsie.

Elsie put down my cup and started to serve this lone person when I blurted out, "Do you mind giving me my coffee please". By this time I started to have visions of spending the entire time waiting in a line and never getting my coffee. Elsie served me before she served this security person.

I got my coffee, went outside and then returned to go through security.

When I went through security, every single person in that coffee line up was working the area. I was searched, scanned, patted down, had my carry-on torn apart, by 3 different security personnel, all in sequence. I swear I saw the last one smirk at someone behind me.

Could I prove I was singled out? No. Could I prove they were abusing their power? No. Do I believe that security personnel were abusing their power? Certainly Yes. Do I believe Gilbert? Absolutely Yes!

And BTW. I'm a white 66 year old, grey haired grandmother.

Update 2011sep12: Here is yet another example of "guilt by looking ethnic". Here is a bit from a post by another victim of security theatre, Shoshana Hebshi, in her blog Stories from the Heartland:
Someone shouted for us to place our hands on the seats in front of us, heads down. The cops ran down the aisle, stopped at my row and yelled at the three of us to get up. “Can I bring my phone?” I asked, of course. What a cliffhanger for my Twitter followers! No, one of the cops said, grabbing my arm a little harder than I would have liked. He slapped metal cuffs on my wrists and pushed me off the plane. The three of us, two Indian men living in the Detroit metro area, and me, a half-Arab, half-Jewish housewife living in suburban Ohio, were being detained.

The cops brought us to a parked squad car next to the plane, had us spread our legs and arms. Mine asked me if I was wearing any explosives. “No,” I said, holding my tongue to not let out a snarky response. I wasn’t sure what I could and could not say, and all that came out was “What’s going on?”

No one would answer me. They put me in the back of the car. It’s a plastic seat, for all you out there who have never been tossed into the back of a police car. It’s hard, it’s hot, and it’s humiliating. The Indian man who had sat next to me on the plane was already in the backseat. I turned to him, shocked, and asked him if he knew what was going on. I asked him if he knew the other man that had been in our row, and he said he had just met him. I said, it’s because of what we look like. They’re doing this because of what we look like. And I couldn’t believe that I was being arrested and taken away.

When the Patriot Act was passed after 9/11 and Arabs and Arab-looking people were being harassed all over the country, my Saudi Arabian dad became nervous. A bit of a conspiracy theorist at heart, he knew the government was watching him and at any time could come and take him away. It was happening all over. Men were being taken on suspicion of terrorist activities and held and questioned–sometimes abused–for long periods of time. Our country had a civil rights issue on its hands. And, in the name of patriotism we lost a lot of our liberty, especially those who look like me.

I never had any run-ins with the law. Since 9/11, though I felt a heightened sense of how my appearance would affect my travel plans, I never had any concrete reason to think I would be targeted.


Eventually a female uniformed officer came in. She looked like a fat Jada Pinkett Smith, and in a kind but firm voice explained what was going to happen. I was to stand, face the wall in a position so the camera above the toilet couldn’t see, and take off my clothes. I complied. She commented on my tattoo, saying, “Oh you have one of those things–good and evil, right?”

“Yin and yang. Balance,” I said, grabbing my clothes to redress.

“You understand why we have to do this, right? It’s for our own protection,” she told me.

Because I am so violent. And pulling me off an airplane, handcuffing me and patting me down against a squad car didn’t offer enough protection. They also needed to make sure all my orifices were free and clear.

She apologized for having to do the strip search, and I asked her to tell me what was going on. She said she didn’t know but someone would come and talk to me. She put my handcuffs back on and left. The other officer stood guard outside. I told him I needed to call my husband. He said I could use the phone later.


In the aftermath of my events on Sept. 11, 2011, I feel violated, humiliated and sure that I was taken from the plane simply because of my appearance. Though I never left my seat, spoke to anyone on the flight or tinkered with any “suspicious” device, I was forced into a situation where I was stripped of my freedom and liberty that so many of my fellow Americans purport are the foundations of this country and should be protected at any cost.

I believe in national security, but I also believe in peace and justice. I believe in tolerance, acceptance and trying–as hard as it sometimes may be–not to judge a person by the color of their skin or the way they dress.


I feel fortunate to have friends and family members who are sick over what happened to me. I share their disgust. But there was someone on that plane who felt threatened enough to alert the authorities. This country has operated for the last 10 years through fear. We’ve been a country at war and going bankrupt for much of this time. What is the next step?

You can read more about the ordeal from this AP report:
When will Americans wake up and demand their country back from the fanatics who see a "terrorist" behind every tree. From the crazies who want to live in a police state because they are scared of their own shadow? The attack on 9/11 was by a tiny handful of fanatics. It was a police action. Not a 10 year war with nearly 7,000 Americans killed, two countries invaded, and half a dozen others subject to drone strikes. Somebody wanted the big show, costly war. Think about who had what to win from making a big deal about "getting Bin Laden dead or alive" but when it came to actually getting him in the Tora Bora mountains, just couldn't see committing many US troops and decided to use Afghani mercenaries instead. Surprise! Bin Laden outbid the Americans and got away. So much for "dead or alive". So much for a serious "war on terrorism". The whole thing is a big Hollywood production to cover up another agenda: getting access to oil, use of fear to win elections, settling accounts with a guy who tried to kill your Daddy, etc.

No comments: