Security Theatre Gets Badly Out Of Hand

With the administration having announced that there were “credible” threats of anniversary attacks on the US by Al Qaeda on 9/11, everyone was admittedly a bit jumpy. The AP carried mentions of two airline incidents which caused fighter jets and security personnel to be scrambled, including this description of one relating to a Frontier Airlines flight:

Police temporarily detained and questioned three passengers at Detroit’s Metropolitan Airport on Sunday after the crew of the Frontier Airlines flight from Denver reported suspicious activity on board, and NORAD sent two F-16 jets to shadow the flight until it landed safely, airline and federal officials said.

The three passengers who were taken off the plane in handcuffs were released Sunday night, and no charges were filed against them, airport spokesman Scott Wintner said.

Frontier Flight 623, with 116 passengers on board, landed without incident in Detroit at 3:30 p.m. EDT after the crew reported that two people were spending “an extraordinarily long time” in a bathroom, Frontier spokesman Peter Kowalchuck said.

FBI Detroit spokeswoman Sandra Berchtold said ultimately authorities determined there was no real threat.

“Due to the anniversary of Sept. 11, all precautions were taken, and any slight inconsistency was taken seriously,” Berchtold said. “The public would rather us err on the side of caution than not.”

In such dry terms, it sounds reasonable that people would be “on the side of caution”. Try reading instead the account of one of the three passengers cuffed and questioned — for being so suspicious as to look slightly like two guys she didn’t know who were in her aisle, both of whom committed the suspicious activity of going to the bathroom:

We had been waiting on the plane for a half hour. I had to pee. I wanted to get home and see my family. And I wanted someone to tell us what was going on. In the distance, a van with stairs came closer. I sighed with relief, thinking we were going to get off the plane and get shuttled back to the terminal. I would still be able to make it home for dinner. Others on the plane also seemed happy to see those stairs coming our way.

I see stairs coming our way…yay!

Before I knew it, about 10 cops, some in what looked like military fatigues, were running toward the plane carrying the biggest machine guns I have ever seen–bigger than what the guards carry at French train stations.

My last tweet:

Majorly armed cops coming aboard

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.

The officers involved sound like they were mostly behaving fairly decently — within the confines of having been given what I find hard to see as anything but incredibly stupid orders (given the plane had clearly handed without incident at its planned destination at this point. That doesn’t make the situation any less appalling, however:

I sat down on the metal cot that hung off the wall. It had a thin, green vinyl mattress–mattress is a generous term–that offered no comfort. It was about a 6-by-10 cell, the concrete walls were painted a light yellow but were streaked with black dirt. The floor was some sort of stainless steel, and a stainless steel toilet that has probably never seen the good side of a scrubbing brush, instructed me to keep holding my stretched bladder as long as I could. Near the ceiling above the toilet there was a video camera.

A plainclothes officer stood came to my door and asked me if I spoke English. Something in me snapped at that question. Of course I spoke English I’m an American citizen, you asshole! Well, I left the expletive out. “Ok,” he said and stood watch outside my door saying he wanted to make sure I didn’t “flush anything.” He also wouldn’t tell me what was going on.

As I sat and waited, quietly contemplating my situation, the other Indian man was getting questioned in the main room outside. I couldn’t see what was going on, but I could hear a bit. They asked him where he was from, did he have any family, where were his shoes. He talked quietly and agreeably. I wondered if he was as incensed as I was or if he had entered this country expecting harassment from the American authorities.

I heard the officers discuss my impending strip search. They needed to bring in a female officer. At least they were following protocol, or something to that nature. Still, could this really be happening?

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.

Another female officer, this one in jeans and a t-shirt came to visit me. She introduced herself as an agent–Homeland Security. She removed my handcuffs and had me follow her to a different room down a long hall and through a few doors. As we walked, I got a glimpse of the watch-stealer, a chubby middle-aged white guy with a buzz cut. He didn’t look too different from some of the officers.

She led me to a small, white room where a man who introduced himself as an FBI agent was waiting for me. I sat on one of three chairs at a small metal table, and the female agent sat across from me. They both offered me their badges for inspection, not that I would have known the difference, but they were calm and not pushy. I appreciated that. The male agent proceeded to ask me a series of questions about where I had been, where I was going, about my family, if I had noticed any suspicious behavior on the plane. The other agent took notes while I talked. They asked if I knew the two men sitting next to me, and if I noticed them getting up during the flight or doing anything I would consider suspicious.

I told them no, and couldn’t remember how many times the men had gotten up, though I was sure they had both gone to the bathroom in succession at some point during the flight.

They had done some background check on me already because they knew I had been to Venezuela in 2001. They asked about my brother and sister and asked about my foreign travel. They asked what I did during the flight. I told them I didn’t get up at all, read, slept and played on my phone (in airplane mode, don’t worry). They asked about my education and wanted my address, Social Security, phone number, Facebook, Twitter, pretty much my whole life story.

The female agent returned to my cell with my cell phone. She wanted me to show her my tweets–that were simultaneously posted onto Facebook–I had composed while on the plane. She joked that she didn’t even have a Facebook account. She left for a few minutes then returned and allowed me to call my husband. She said I would be released in a few minutes.

The sound of his voice brought me to tears, but I tried to remain calm. I gave him a one-minute recap of my situation, which only left him confused. I told him I would call him when I got to my car, which was parked in an airport lot.

I hung up the phone and followed the officer out of the cell and into another small room where the male FBI agent was waiting accompanied by another FBI agent–possibly the head honcho on duty. He said the three of us were being released and there was nothing suspicious found on the plane. He apologized for what had happened and thanked me for understanding and cooperating. He said, “It’s 9/11 and people are seeing ghosts. They are seeing things that aren’t there.” He said they had to act on a report of suspicious behavior, and this is what the reaction looks like.

He said there had been 50 other similar incidents across the country that day.

I was led out another door and down a long hall where I gathered my bags, which had been removed from the plane and searched. In the hallway I saw the other two men who had also been detained. They seemed happy to be being released as well. It felt strange to smile at them, and I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.

We walked outside of the building, and for the first time I saw that we were at the airport police station, which also doubled as the spot for the local Homeland Security office to reside–an office that didn’t exist 10 years ago. It was starting to get dark. But I still didn’t know what time it was.

Another officer drove me to my car in the airport parking lot. As he plopped into the drivers seat and me into the passenger’s seat of the unmarked sedan, he apologized for not having air conditioning, but being a descendant of desert people I obviously didn’t mind the heat. He asked me if I was OK to drive back to my home in Ohio, and I said I was, though I wasn’t sure I was. I wasn’t sure how this would affect me. I am still not sure.

Read the whole thing.

The stupid and frustrating thing about this, and the comparatively minor frustrations and indignities that everyone who enters an airport is put through these days, is that this kind of hyper-adherence to “better safe than sorry” protocols does not make us any safer. If someone thought it was so incredibly essential to question these three passengers despite the fact the flight had landed without incident, an officer could simply have asked them to come aside for a few minutes and done the standard metal detector and chemical-sniffer-machine tests that I’ve been put through half a dozen times in the last ten years. Not only is this kind of ridiculous over-reaction to a non-event a waste of time and money, it is a waste of a far more precious commodity: the trust of our citizens for our government, and our trust of our fellow citizens themselves.

After having been put through this by an inflexible security bureaucracy and instigation of a jumpy flight attendant or fellow passenger, any normal person is going to go around feeling like others are constantly looking at them with suspicious and disapproval.

It is certainly essential, in the light of the last ten years, that we put real attention to security concerns. But there is a big difference between real security and the sort of security theatre that goes on in our airports. This foolish overreaction has to stop.

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