Wright from Washington City
August 27, 2007


The concourse to serfdom
At the airport, things are getting even uglier

Tyranny Detection Officer


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American air travel's descent into utter, degrading squalor continues apace.

First, there was yet another story about passengers being imprisoned on an unmoving airplane, this time for five hours. Even worse, when the passengers began to get restless, the pilot sicced the cops on them. That's according to "Right There on the Tarmac, the Inmates Revolt," by Joe Sharkey, writing in the New York Times on August 14.

This should give you the flavor: "As passengers described it, once the police ordered the plane emptied, they filed out into the secure area, where some said they felt as if they were being treated like suspects." Sharkey quotes one passenger: "As we walked down the hallway, we were yelled at like we were scary criminals by this female cop who had a dog. She kept yelling: 'Stay against the wall!'"

And my wife wonders why I break out into a rash whenever I have to travel by air. But wait, that's not all. Not by a long shot. Have a look at this piece by Kaitlin Dirrig of the McClatchy Newspapers: "New airport agents check for danger in fliers' facial expressions." The TSA has dubbed these new goons "Behavior Detection Officers," and they work in pairs. Dirrig writes: "Typically, one officer sizes up passengers openly while the other seems to be performing a routine security duty. A passenger who arouses suspicion, whether by micro-expressions, social interaction, or body language gets subtle but more serious scrutiny."

"Micro-expressions." I like that. Apparently now if your eyeballs twitch the wrong way because you're upset about something, or feeling guilty about something that's nobody else's business, or fearful of flying — or, for some odd reason, annoyed at all the nonsense you have to put up with at airports — you run the risk of being hustled off for interrogation by highly trained goons. Highly trained, that is, if you think 16 hours of instruction is enough to turn your typical dandruff-ridden airport security clown into a steely-eyed Behavior Detection Officer.

But why depend at all on humans to misinterpret someone's grimaces? In a desperate search for new ways to waste tax funds, our rulers propose a whole new class of machines to single out potential victims. Dirrig reports that "Jay M. Cohen, undersecretary of Homeland Security for Science and Technology, said in May that he wants to automate passenger screening by using videocams and computers to measure and analyze heart rate, respiration, body temperature, and verbal responses as well as facial micro-expressions."

Oh, yeah. That'll work. Some government agency spent millions a few years ago on a system that was supposed to automatically recognize the faces of wanted criminals on surveillance cameras, and came up with a big, fat goose egg. This sounds like more of the same.

Airports today are the place to go if you want to see the future of our Homeland Security State. Soft, soothing voices warn you that the walkway is about to end. Others comfortingly instruct you on the ceremonial stuffing of the quart-sized plastic bag with your dangerous toothpaste, shampoo, mouthwash, and shaving cream. A little farther along the same voice gently reminds you that you need to remove your shoes, belt, cell phone, and all metallic objects, all to be placed in the Trays Provided For Your Convenience, in preparation for the ritual march through the Sacred Portal of the metal detector. Every time I engage in this degrading ceremony I am struck by the blank, sheeplike expressions on the faces of my fellow passengers as they shuffle along in their stocking feet under the sour gaze of Security Personnel.

Meanwhile, passengers decanted from their flying prisons are enjoined, also by recorded voices, not to accept taxi rides from drivers, or any service from anybody, who has not been properly anointed by The Authorities.

This last is particularly a problem at Trantor's Dulles International, which is an ideal microcosm of the imperial mega-state. Only one company is allowed to operate buses, taxis, shuttle vans, etc., out of Dulles, through a monopoly contract. According to the functionaries in charge of the airport, this is to ensure that there will always be transportation available for arriving passengers. As a result, one is often obliged to wait for extended periods for transportation — while at Reagan National, which has no such restrictions, the taxis are always lined up and waiting, any time of the day or night.

Dulles's terminal, while pretty to look at, is one of the most badly designed ever built. Completed at huge taxpayer expense just in time for the era of the jumbo jet, its blueprints were supervised by a state-loving control freak with his vision firmly fixed on a bigger, better 1950s. To get to your gate, you must first ride in an odd shuttle-bus sort of vehicle, also built at comparatively huge taxpayer expense, that was originally meant to take passengers directly from the terminal and then attach itself like a lamprey to 1960s-style airplanes waiting near the runways. The day the first 747 landed, the shuttles became obsolete, for they were unable to hook up with the taller planes, and unable to carry enough passengers anyway.

The authorities were then obliged to build concourses that could service the new jumbos, again at huge taxpayer expense. But, loath to ruin the hallowed lines of the Eero Saarinen-designed terminal, they built them physically removed from that building, necessitating the aforementioned journey aboard the shuttle, which adds, at a minimum, a half-hour to each traveler's journey. If you're running late, you are guaranteed to miss the shuttle you need to catch: shuttle drivers greatly enjoy shutting their doors in the face of desperate would-be passengers.

And if you're not careful, you will be late, because the security lines at Dulles beggar the imagination, being reminiscent of the queues for toilet paper or oranges one used to see in the Soviet Union. The layout of the terminal simply doesn't lend itself to getting a large number of people quickly through the Sacred Portals and on their way. On more than one occasion I have stood in line for a solid hour waiting to get through "security." A tunnel is now being built, yet again at enormous taxpayer expense, to alleviate, but not cure, this ridiculous situation.

Can the reader imagine such a colossal failure of imagination on the part of a truly free enterprise? But then, free enterprise doesn't have much of a place in airports, unless it has been properly licensed, approved, bonded, and certified. That, of course, means that it isn't free at all, and helps explain the outrageous prices one must pay for bottles of water, Snickers bars, and the double shot of straight whiskey the traveler now desperately seeks between flights.

In any case, it seems clear that the way things are going, it is only a matter of time before passengers are stripped naked and herded onto airplanes with cattle prods, identity chips embedded in their necks and their boarding passes stamped on their bottom in indelible ink. I bet the Behavior Detection Officers will have their hands full sorting out the micro-expressions then.

August 27, 2007

Published 2007 WTM Enterprises.

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