Hip and other joint replacements are made of metal, and so anyone who has an artificial joint triggers metal detector alarms. When the Transportation Security Administration is in charge, the alarm results in an automatic pat-down or full-body scan. Who is most likely to have replacement joints? The elderly and those who have certain disabling conditions. The TSA, and its umbrella agency, the Department of Homeland Security, need to recognize that while they undoubtedly do not intend to profile disabled and elderly people, in practice it feels exactly like profiling.
The purpose of security checks at airports is to prevent terrorist attacks. Respecting this rationale, the public submits to baggage checks, limits on liquids, emptying pockets, and so on. But the cases of disabled and elderly people raise the question of just how efficient TSA screening is in achieving this purpose.
An incident soon after 9/11 first caused me to question heightened security measures in general. I was on a Brooklyn-bound subway train in the Wall Street 2/3 station when we passengers were told to get out. For half an hour, dozens of passengers stood around wondering what was happening. Eventually, I overheard a police officer explain that a suspicious bag had been found in one of the cars. A search was being conducted for any other such objects. I don’t know what was being done with the located bag. Trains going the opposite direction kept coming in on the other side of that station’s narrow platform. Eventually I got on one and went back a stop to a station where I could change to another line going near my home.
Had there really been a bomb on the stationary train and had it exploded, any number of people standing around on the platform would have been killed or injured. Yet we weren’t evacuated. It seemed the police didn’t believe the threat was real, even though they caused a lot of disruption and some anxiety—in Metropolitan Transportation Agency lingo, inconvenience.
Ever since, whenever I encounter the security measures ordinary people are subjected to, I ask myself if they serve a genuine security purpose or if they’re just for show. Are they designed for politicians to claim they’re doing something and for security people to justify their job? I try not to go beyond into Orwellian speculation.
Admittedly, disability doesn’t prevent a person from being recruited by a terrorist organization or from committing violent crimes. A leading participant in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center was the blind cleric, Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman. Then again, he wasn’t at the site when the bomb was placed. My story “California Towhee,” a humorous but realistic story about a blind man committing a bank robbery, is based on a real-life event. The real guy failed, but my character carries out a successful plan, albeit with a little help from a friend. Another real-life robber with only limited vision in one eye robbed seventeen banks and was twice imprisoned.
Still, the odds of a significantly physically disabled person carrying out a terrorist threat at an airport are improbable at best. Despite these odds, the TSA screens 100% of travelers with artificial joints.
The bilateral hip replacement surgery I had in 1992 subjects me to full-body scans and pat-downs every time I fly.
Ironically, I’m on the TSA’s pre-check list, which at least spares me from having to take off my shoes. But when I contemplate a trip, I balk at projecting to the moment when I must yield to unwanted intimate contact with a stranger. The security men detailed to screen me don’t believe for one moment I’m a threat, but most take their time and do a thorough job. Once in a while, a more sensible guard will go through the motions, taking just a few seconds and hardly touching me.
One of the toughest issues facing today’s world is the difficulty of treating each person with dignity when there are so many of us. If there is any understanding of this fundamental problem, it is almost always subordinated to more specific complaints. Take The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), a first step in trying to ensure all Americans receive adequate health care. Critics attack it for many reasons, some ideological and others legitimately practical, from discredited “death panels” to excessive premiums. But most critics avoid making these points in the context of the basic question: How does a huge society treat all its citizens fairly?
Travel has long faced a similar dilemma. Before the late sixties, international travel was restricted primarily to the relative few who had the time and money. Since then, international travel has become available to the multitudes. Critics saw this development as threatening local culture and, by eliminating all elements of exoticism, as homogenizing the traveler’s experience. (See, for example, Arthur Koestler’s 1969 essay “Farewell to Gauguin,” reproduced in his collection, The Heel of Achilles.) Certain countries’ security forces monitoring these mass movements began confronting terrorist threats around that time, but they became a top issue for American security only after September, 2001.
It’s impossible to check every passenger, and so the number given special attention must be minimized. The metal detector is a primary winnowing device to this end. But it is a misuse of this technology to single out for special treatment everyone who triggers the alarm. Additional techniques should be employed to winnow down this group still further.
Commentators contend that behavioral observation and quick interviews are more likely to catch potential terrorists than full-body scans and pat-downs. Israel uses these techniques and is often held up as a success story both for effective security (terrorists haven’t infiltrated Ben Gurion International Airport since 1972) and for minimizing disruption to passengers. However, it does seem ethnic profiling is part of the process, which, at least so far, is deemed unacceptable in the United States. Annoying as I find my airport experiences, Israel has been known to hold members of certain ethnic groups aside for hours and subject them to full body searches. (See the preceding linked article.) Some experts say non-ethnic behavioral profiling and interview techniques work just as well in airports elsewhere in the world.
I am no expert. What I do know is this. To act as though disabled and elderly people constitute a likely threat to airport security is ludicrous. That we are treated as though we are a threat demonstrates that the TSA’s airport security is more like a self-perpetuating conveyer belt than a functioning vetting process. The success some actual terrorists and numerous testers have shown in passing through TSA security supports this view.
Corrective action is called for not only because these measures are needlessly intrusive, embarrassing and upsetting, but also because they provide little or no security. To the extent that people like me take up the time and attention of airport security staff, they are distracted from more plausible terrorist threats.
Postscript. I drafted this essay before the November 8 election was decided. If anyone at the NHS or TSA might have listened before, I wonder if they will after this coming January 20. For the damage that might befall disabled people in general as a result of Donald Trump’s plan to dismantle the U.S. Department of Education and other agencies, see the November 3 post by a normally unflappable disability rights lawyer, Lainey Feingold. Her predicted outcome is more dire than mine, but she brings up potential consequences that hadn’t occurred to me. It’s hard to look forward with optimism.