X-Ray Specs

Before we go any further, I wonder if you’d mind emptying your pockets of all your change, your key rings, anything that might be wrapped in foil – chewing gum, cigarettes, whatever.  Pat yourself down and put it all on the table in front of you.

Now get up and walk slowly through a doorway with your arms held away from your sides in an unnatural posture.  Come back, remove some metallic item you forgot about the first time – your belt buckle, your earrings – and shuffle through the doorway again.

That wasn’t too inconvenient, was it?

In the modern world, is there a more regular, regimented and ritualistic encounter with technology than one’s passage through the airport security gauntlet of X-ray machines and metal detectors?  Is there any more rueful?

I am of the generation that was born into a world with television and nuclear weapons, and grew up with computers.  But I was not born into a world where the threat of mass murder in the airline industry dictated zones of strict surveillance and suspicion in every airport in the world.  That came later.

Starting when I was 11 years old, I often flew between Saskatoon and Winnipeg.  As difficult as it may be to imagine today, I did so by myself and there were no security checkpoints at either end.  Mum and Dad kissed you at the gate, you got on board and that was that.  This was in the happy days before fanatics figured out that commandeering a jumbo jet at gunpoint was a sure-fire publicity stunt.

I daresay that the short flight between Saskatoon and Winnipeg is still minimum risk, terrorist-wise, but you can’t be too careful.  Today no one gets on a plane without being electronically frisked.

The security checkpoint is intended as a technology of reassurance, an apparatus of vigilance in the interests of public safety.  It stands on guard for thee.  And certainly it’s comforting to know there’s a mechanism in place that will make some nut case with a death wish think twice before packing a hand grenade in his valise.

But by the same token, it’s a paranoid technology, a technology of universal suspicion.  Anyone might be a terrorist or a madman, so we must all submit to the indignity of having our persons and our property routinely searched.  This is technology for a culture that has developed a permanent case of the jitters.

If you don’t think the procedure is undignified, consider the story my wife tells of the woman in front of her in a security lineup who kept setting off the metal detector, even after she’d shed everything on her person that could be triggering the alarm.

Eventually, as the crowd behind her became ever more impatient, she confessed to the security personnel that she was wearing stockings with garters and metal clasps.  She was forced to publicly describe her underwear.

The jobs that come with these machines are equally emblematic of our times.  On the one hand, with their crypto-cop uniforms and their quasi-scientific tools of detection, airport security personnel are part of the burgeoning class of surveillance professionals whose duty is to be both officious and efficient.

On the other hand, the job itself is both menial and mind numbing: hour upon hour staring at a screen, day in day out.

One has to wonder, too, whether these machines actually work.  I don’t doubt they serve as the first line of deterrence, but if some hard-core bad guys willing to die for their cause really wanted to blow up your 747, don’t you think they could figure out a way to slip the Semtex past the woman with the electronic wand?

And if a suicidal psychotic wanted to take out a few innocent bystanders, what’s to prevent him from blazing away at the check-in counters?  Or at the knots of people lining up to proceed through the security checkpoint, for that matter?  They don’t scan you when you enter the airport, which means you could be packing heat undetected right up to the point where they ask you to empty your pockets.

If you are troubled by such thoughts, keep them to yourself, at least while queuing for the X-ray machines, because the airport security corridor is as policed a zone of speech and behaviour as it’s possible to have in a society that otherwise thinks of itself as free.  Here, there is no such thing as an innocent remark.  Commenting audibly on the process, the apparatus or what it’s all designed to prevent leads to automatic court appearances.  If a woman’s garters set off the metal detector, do not wonder aloud whether she might have a pistol strapped to her thigh.

In the end, what’s dispiriting about airport security machines is that we’ll never be rid of them.  In a civilized society we might trust that no one would show up at an airport with mayhem in mind.  But those days are long gone, never to return.

And in the absence of trust in our fellow citizens, we must place our trust instead in the machinery of distrust.eg

  • Globe and Mail August 19, 1999