Monday, January 23, 2012

Strip Searching Old Ladies At The Airport

I saw a very interesting/funny/sad story the other day: it seems that in three separate incidents, three little old ladies were strip-searched by TSA workers at JFK airport in New York City over the Thanksgiving holiday.

One of these ladies, a fearsome 88-year-old named Ruth Sherman of terrorist hotbed Sunrise, Florida, was forced to lower her pants by agents so they could examine her colostomy bag. Another, 85-year-old Lenore Zimmerman of Long Beach, NY, was asked to drop her pants, pull up her top, and remove the back brace from her imposing 110-pound frame, which was then run through the X-ray machine, while Ms. Zimmerman presumably muttered a jihadist mantra.

In a reaction befitting their ages, both women wrote strongly worded letters to their Senators in complaint, and the TSA has in turn apologized for the searches, saying that it is not standard procedure to strip search anyone or to examine their assistive medical accessories, and that all JFK agents will receive a refresher training course on how to search obviously unthreatening little old ladies without offending or undressing them. It's unclear whether the workers in question will get any further punishment, though I would argue that first seeing and then handling an 88-year-old woman's colostomy bag is its own punishment.

It so happens that I have had a couple of notable security-related experiences at that very same airport.

The first took place when my wife and I were going to San Francisco for a Halloween party in 2003. (Oh, to be young and childless.) It was barely two years after 9/11, in the first flush of tightened security measures in American airports, and so we arrived for our flight nice and early, expecting long lines and endless hassle; instead we found the airport nearly empty and eerily quiet. We went to check in and found that there were no human beings working the check-in counter -- just the automated machines where you swipe your credit card and receive your boarding pass. We then went through the security checkpoint, where we were asked for our boarding passes, but not for our ID's. A few minutes later, we arrived at our plane, which had no attendant at the gate -- just another machine to run our boarding passes through. As we did that, we asked each other "Did we just get on a plane without showing anyone any ID?" We retraced our steps and decided that this was indeed the case.

Once again: we boarded a plane from New York to San Francisco, at the height of national hijacking paranoia, without showing ID to anybody. Well played, TSA -- well played.

The second incident was even more disturbing: About a year later, I was able to wrangle an invite to Blue Man Group's opening gala when they moved their Las Vegas show from the Luxor to the Venetian. (I have quite a few friends in blue places.) This presented a dual opportunity: one, to go to Las Vegas and party like the 1% for little more than the cost of a plane ticket; and two, to shoot a video in Las Vegas for the live variety show I was producing at the time.

The show, The Paco Doubledown Variety Hour, was hosted by veteran entertainer and talent scout Paco Doubledown, a washed-up Catskills vaudeville type with antiquated notions about how one makes it in "the business," and it seemed only natural that if the three of us who worked on the show (Paco, myself, and our friend AJ) were going to be in Las Vegas, we should shoot a little piece about Paco returning to his natural habitat.  All of this is by way of telling you that when I went to the airport, I had a bunch of video gear in my bag: camera, microphones, headphones, etc. Since we were going to Las Vegas, we were also all wearing suits, and the duffel bag with my camera gear was my only luggage -- I had a couple of T-shirts and pairs of shorts and a bathing suit in there too.

When we went through security, I was informed I had been randomly flagged for a search, and as I had nothing to hide, I complied without complaint, and watched as the security worker removed every item from my bag, all but turning it upside down and shaking out the contents. He was momentarily puzzled by some of the camera stuff -- the shotgun mic and the wireless lavalier mic are both somewhat suspicious looking if you don't know what they are -- but I got the nod that all was well (but no assistance repacking my bag).

A bit later, it came time to board the plane, and when I checked in the airline lady said I had been randomly flagged for a search. I replied that I had already been searched at security. She asked if I had the sticker on my bag to prove that, but I didn't. I guess in his haste to see if I had enough stuff to cover every inch of his table, the security guy forgot to give me that sticker. Anyway, she told me I couldn't board the plane without it, and I momentarily started to panic: it was a five- or ten-minute walk from the gate to the security checkpoint, and the line there was not short. If I went all the way back there and waited in line again, I worried I was going to miss the plane, and I said as much to the airline lady.

An airline gentleman appeared, assured me the plane would wait till we got back, and ran with me back to security, where he waved his little badge, bypassed the line, and got my bag emptied of its contents for the second time (by the same security guy, by the way, who seemed to have no memory of searching the same bag 30 minutes before). The big orange sticker was slapped on the side of my bag, the airline guy and I ran like O.J back to the gate. (By that I mean like O.J. in the old Hertz commercials, not like O.J. trying to escape arrest for double murder.)

From there, everything went fine: I got on the plane, went to Vegas, had a great time, shot a funny video with my friends (which I sadly cannot link to here because YouTube pulled it down for its unauthorized use of "Luck Be A Lady" as its score), saw the New York Dolls at the gala afterparty at a fancy-schmancy nightclub called Tao, and generally had a terrific time.

It was on the return trip that this joke got its punchline. MacCarran Airport in Las Vegas, in addition to being riddled with slot machines, also has far superior security to that of JFK, which seems wrong for several reasons, primarily the fact that New York is an infinitely more attractive terrorist target than Las Vegas (and by attractive I don't mean to refer to the fact that Las Vegas seems to have 680% more body fat than New York -- that's definitely true, but it's not what I meant.).

Anyway, this superior security is first evidenced by the magic poof machine (technical name unknown) -- a doorway with two dozen little air jets irregularly spaced on all sides that poof little poofs of air on your body and somehow determine whether you're wired to explode. It's a given that Las Vegas must have a ludicrously high tax base, so it's obvious that its airport can afford such space-age technology, but I'm puzzled why the busiest airport in the U.S. can't swing it.

Anyway, after the magic poof machine -- my nickname in college, by the way -- determines that I'm not about to go nuclear, I present my boarding pass and am once again told that I've been flagged for random search. Still having nothing to hide, I ignore the questionable math of being randomly tagged from a pool of 240+ passengers on two consecutive flights and submit to a third search without complaint.

Surprise! The Las Vegas security guy proves himself more competent than his New York counterpart when he finds a super-sharp pocketknife in the pocket on one end of my duffel bag -- precisely where the big orange sticker had been slapped on at JFK. I'm momentarily shocked to see it, even though it's definitely mine -- I had taken it camping the previous summer, and must have just left it in the bag and missed it. The security guy gives me the option to take it back into the airport and find someplace to mail it to myself, but I don't have time for that, so I watch him toss it in the garbage can and head off to the plane.

To recap: in the first three years after 9/11, I got on a plane at JFK without showing ID to anyone, and I got a knife that made a boxcutter look like a thumbtack through not one but two bag searches at the same airport.

So I feel bad for those two little old ladies, but it is nice to see that JFK security has gone from doing not nearly enough to doing way, way too much. Err on the side of caution, that's what I say. Who knows what those little old ladies were capable of?

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