Armed With Only a Neutral Lipstick

Good news, America: the airspace of this great nation is safe from middle-aged women in business suits armed with 27 old crumpled Visa receipts and three identical tubes of Bobbi Brown lipstick.

In the space of only eight hours I was pulled out of line, patted down, wanded and, not to be coy, generally felt up at two major airports. Twice, actually, at Chicago's O'Hare alone, once at the end of a security-checkpoint line reminiscent of what our ancestors experienced at Ellis Island and again at the gate.

"Do you mind if I feel your back?" said a woman in uniform. "If I mind, does that mean I spend the day with an FBI agent in a room painted the color of overcooked broccoli?" I replied.

Actually, I just shook my head. And as I stood with my arms outstretched having my ankles squeezed and my shoulders patted, as the other passengers filed by with that I-wonder-what-exactly-are-her-ties-to-Osama-bin-Laden look, I did a little math in my head.

Number of September 11 terrorists who were female: 0.

Number of recent incidents in which women rushed cockpits, lit shoe bombs or otherwise ran amok on planes: 0.

Number of recent airplane hijackings by women: 0.

Finally seated, trying to cut chicken with a plastic knife and a metal fork, I came to three conclusions:

Airlines have not yet figured out that you can do more damage with a fork than a butter knife.

Women are too busy making pediatricians' appointments, having mammograms and blowing the whistle on suspect accounting practices to hijack planes.

Airport security is a mess.

Sure, the administration announced last week that it is recruiting 30,000 people to work as screeners. But if they're working with the same sort of topsy-turvy rules that dictated that I was a likely candidate to be given the twice-over, all that will be a waste of taxpayers' money. They're not only searching my purse, they're picking my pocket.

"The computer picked you," one of the screeners at O'Hare confided. Apparently that might have been because I didn't check a bag, or because I changed my return flight at the last moment. Of course, this is a description of virtually every frequent business flier in the country. We don't check bags because the airlines lose them; we change our return flights because the airline canceled the ones we were originally scheduled to take.

But the best guess is that I was snagged randomly because the airlines are terrified of being accused of profiling, and paying special attention to people who are not the faintest risk as a security threat is one way to defuse that charge. There was a great uproar about profiling several years ago when a commission on airline safety recommended that automated passenger profiles be developed. Civil libertarians jumped all over this proposal, saying that law-abiding Arab-American men were likely to be unfairly singled out.

In the aftermath of the September terrorist attacks, conservatives jumped on those civil libertarians, saying that it was worth inconveniencing, perhaps even humiliating, Arab-Americans for the greater good, and that selective screening might have helped avert the attacks. Those arguments collapsed amid reports that nine of the September 11 hijackers were indeed specially screened, which obviously had no effect on the security of the country.

Somewhere there must be a middle ground between random screening, which is useless, and screening that targets only ethnicity and race, which is offensive. It is a middle ground that recognizes the difference between profiling based on bias, like the kind that leads to all 21-year-old black men in Camaros being pulled over on Route 80 in New Jersey, and profiling based on information, as when members of an organization based in the Middle East are in the business of air hijackings. Of course, there have to be other considerations. Age is one, since the average known age of the hijackers was under 30. Gender is clearly key, despite the sudden spate of three suicide bombings in Israel by women. Citizenship, flying patterns, method of payment: the glory of software is its ability to take stacks of facts and pull out statistical probabilities.

Instead kids and old people are being pulled out of line for special security scanning, as well as a former governor of South Dakota who was flagged in part because he had his Congressional Medal of Honor in his pocket, and a member of Congress who was asked to drop his pants when his artificial hip set off the metal detectors. My objection isn't that having strangers feel you up is creepy, although it is, or that it makes you angry when it happens three times in one day, although it does. It's that it's a waste of scarce resources. Who knows who could be sliding by while security personnel are checking my lipstick for Plasticine?

One suggestion is that there should be a special identification card for those who are willing to undergo, perhaps even to pay for, the background screening that many civil libertarians decry. Another is that a risk-benefit consensus be built by telling Americans more about how profiles are developed and how well they work. Right now, though, it's hard to shake loose any real information on the process. So I can only make some modest suggestions for airline passengers hoping to limit physical contact to their masseuse and their spouse.

Leave the Congressional Medal of Honor at home. Once it was a mark of valor. Now it's just sharp metal.

Don't wear socks with holes. They make you take off your shoes.

Lingerie manufacturers: start making bras with plastic hardware. Apparently there is fear that some woman will whip out her underwire and use it as a weapon. Quite frankly, by the time I was done at the airport I was more than willing to try.

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