If the airlines had hired the most expensive consultants in the world to try to figure out a way to make the flying experience even more unpleasant than it was before Sept. 11, the consultants would have given up in despair. But chalk one up to American ingenuity: The airlines have done it on their own!
Getting a head start on the holiday season, airport security guards have already begun their Christmas shopping by stealing air travelers' belongings. Unless they pilfer possessions worth more to you than making your plane and avoiding an enormous hassle, there's nothing you can do. And the guards know there's nothing you can do, which adds to the innate charm of security personnel.
A security guard took a piece of my jewelry at the Spokane Airport last Saturday with approval from his Olympic Security supervisor. The alert supervisor called airport police when I asked for her name.
I want it back. It was a silver charm from Aspen in the shape of a bullet with a great deal of sentimental value. But in a strange coincidence, a few hours later, it was missing from the Olympic security box of confiscated loot. It's probably already wrapped.
If you are not a half-wit – and not Christmas shopping from other people's stuff – you will instantly recognize that a silver charm is a silver charm, and it doesn't matter if it's in the shape of the anthrax virus. Even a real bullet can't cause any harm without a gun. A silver charm soldered to a key chain is less threatening than a tube of lipstick. Of course, my lipstick would undoubtedly also have been deemed a grave security risk by Olympic Security if it had been in the supervisor's color.
Since Sept. 11, that silver-charm key chain has been through airport security dozens of times. But security guards are getting nervous. There are only 29 more shopping days till Christmas!
There has been more caterwauling about the Bureau of Prisons listening to the conversations of prison inmates suspected of plotting terrorist attacks than to the universal intrusive physical inspections of Americans trying to board airplanes. If law enforcement officers ever dared paw through the belongings of an Egyptian immigrant named Mustaffa with the fascist intensity of airport security patting down little old ladies suspected of flying to Iowa, the country would go nuts with righteous indignation.
As long as the airlines insist on going through the manifestly absurd exercise of treating all passengers the same in an obscure desire to impress The New York Times editorial page, the airlines ought to abandon the personal inspections altogether. We can't keep weapons out of prisons; we certainly can't keep them off airplanes – not even by turning airports into the pleasant and welcoming environment of a federal penitentiary.
Indeed, after airport security confiscates any jewelry that might make a nice Christmas gift, the airlines hand out weapons on the planes. They still serve wine in glass goblets that can be smashed to create jagged glass daggers. They still serve soda in cans that can be twisted apart to create razor-sharp knives. They still have emergency exit doors that can be opened during flight, causing the plane to crash.
Not to worry, though. If you think about it for up to three seconds, it will occur to you that airports are attractive to terrorists for only one reason: There are airplanes at airports! And what is alluring about airplanes is that they can be turned into cruise missiles or blown up in the air.
If terrorists just wanted to kill a bunch of people in one place, they could go to shopping malls, restaurants, movie theaters – anyplace, really. So why aren't there security guards at shopping malls pawing through our purses and stealing our jewelry?
The only safety precaution that will make the planes safer would be impenetrable cockpit doors and bomb checks for luggage – two security measures airlines doggedly refuse to implement.
While still completely vulnerable to another terrorist attack, Americans submit like good Germans to these purposeless airport shakedowns. Most sick, and most predictable, is that some Americans are relishing their new roles as fascist storm troopers.
In a famous study conducted at Yale in the '60s by professor Stanley Milgram, members of the public willingly administered what they thought were fatal electric shocks to another human being – simply because they were told to do so.
Believing they were participating in a study on memory, the volunteers watched a "pupil" being strapped to a chair and wired to electrodes. The volunteers were then taken to the next room and told to read questions to the pupil and to administer increasingly powerful electric shocks for every answer he got wrong. The electric-shock buttons appeared to go up to 450 volts and were clearly labeled, "Danger: Severe Shock."
The volunteers readily administered the shocks while listening to the pupil cry out in pain. Two-thirds of the volunteers continued to administer the shocks even after the pupil emitted a blood-curdling scream and then suddenly went totally silent, apparently dead. The study was shocking. If asked to do so by an authority figure, a majority of people will kill another person completely unknown to them.
It would be interesting to know if professor Milgram advised the airlines on their own fascinating study examining whether millions of Americans will allow themselves to be treated like convicted criminals for no purpose whatsoever. The only alternative is to stop flying.