"Anybody wanna volunteer?"
That is how an amiable old gentleman greeted passengers at a boarding gate at Philadelphia International Airport earlier this week. The man, an officially designated security screener, was lightheartedly conducting "random" checks. He giggled. I scowled. He then yanked me out of a group of some 50 passengers to do his bit to fight terrorism.
The elderly buffoon rifled through my carry-on bag and pawed my water bottle. You never know what we short young women of Asian descent traveling alone with small briefcases stuffed with newspapers, Dramamine, chocolate chip cookies and store-bought beverages might be plotting. He asked me to drink the water (to ensure I wasn't toting liquid nitroglycerine, no doubt), and he touched my throat to make sure I had swallowed my suspicious-looking dihydrogen oxide.
After confiscating a single, incriminating paper clip and scanning me with his magic wand, the screener shooed me away and turned again to the line of travelers: "Hey, anyone else wanna volunteer?" He chuckled like Ernie on Sesame Street as he toyed with his metal detector. "Kee-hee-hee."
The screeners who manned the boarding gate at Indianapolis International Airport on my return trip were no less farcical. A trio of young people, who looked better suited to screen passengers on the roller coaster rides at Six Flags, chomped loudly on bubble gum as we queued up. I rolled my eyes at the sight of these three pimply-faced stooges on the front lines of the War on Terror. One of them grabbed my arm as I was about to board and told me to step aside.
Not once during this two-minute episode did any of the three screeners look me in the eye. Two of them were too preoccupied yakking with each other about sports as they stuffed their hands in my bag and purposelessly reshuffled my papers. The other screener, a big-haired blonde girl, was fixated on my shoes -- nondescript black mules. She ordered me to take them off. She shook them and tapped on the stacked heels. Who did she think I was? The Payless Shoe Bomber?
She blew a bubble with her gum, smacked her lips and sent me on my way. Osama bin Laden sends us Mohammed Atta. We send out Mr. Rogers and Britney Spears.
Against every natural instinct, I held my tongue during these grating airport encounters. For while it is perfectly legal for these screeners to make a complete mockery of national security in words and actions, the rest of us are subject to felony criminal charges if we dare to open our mouths.
A day before my unamusing little searches at the hands of the Keystone airport cops, an air passenger who jokingly questioned whether the plane's pilots were sober was forcibly removed from an America West flight, one week after two of the airline's pilots were arrested in Miami on charges of operating an aircraft while drunk. The passenger's comment? She asked flight attendants if they had "checked the crew for sobriety." America West spokeswoman Patty Nowack huffed sanctimoniously: "Safety is no joking matter. It is taken very seriously."
Indeed, last fall, an exasperated German woman was charged with a felony carrying a maximum five-year sentence for joking with a customer service agent. The poor woman had been stopped three times at Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., by screeners who searched her carry-on luggage -- full of underwear. As the agent opened up one last compartment in her bag, the woman joked that she had a bomb there. The agent called a supervisor. The supervisor called the cops.
She was sentenced to two years of unsupervised probation and given a $1,000 fine.
And America was made safer from terrorism.
Ha ha ha.