Taking Off Your Shoes

This one's for you! Yes, you, the guy in the security line at Newark airport who confiscated my pomade because the jar was marked 3.5 ounces when the Transportation Security Administration regulations mandate less than three.

"I scooped out half of it so it would be under the limit," I explained as my husband slid by with a five-ounce tube of shaving cream. Never fear, frequent fliers: he was nabbed later, on the return flight from Ohio, along with that woman with the contraband Robitussin.

Is this any way to run an airline? Between constant delays and nonexistent services, flying has become the modern version of seafaring steerage accommodations. But nothing has made it seem worse than the long lines of bedraggled and beaten-down travelers at security checkpoints, pouring their change into plastic tubs, standing in stocking feet as their shoes are scanned, proffering zip-lock bags full of face creams and foundation. Before the ban on such items in carry-ons was relaxed, I watched three tubes of Maybelline Great Lash go plunk into the bin, stupid enough to believe that if they had passed Orlando they could make it through Atlanta or Seattle. As a frowning agent tossed the stuff, I had a mental picture of terrorists seizing control of a passenger jet armed with mascara wands. Which is no sillier than most of what passes for airport security.

This is not merely an inconvenience. The whole cockeyed system has become a symbol of the shortcomings of government programs and responses. It's expensive, arbitrary and infuriating; it turns low-wage line workers into petty despots. And instead of making Americans feel safer, its sheer silliness illuminates how impotent we are in the face of terrorism. The hustle and bustle at U.S. checkpoints is window dressing, another one of those rote, unthinking exercises that are the hallmark of bureaucracies, like "Bleak House" with luggage.

It's always tempting for a taxpayer to daydream about all the things government money could be used for if used sensibly. I have a laundry list in my computer of those programs we could have bankrolled instead of what may wind up being a $2 trillion invasion of Iraq. Preschool for every child, enormous grants for medical research, a system of universal health care. A trillion is a terrible thing to waste.

There's the same kind of wish list for the TSA, which wants to spend more than $4 billion on aviation security next year, most of it ham-handedly. Terrorism isn't stopped at the X-ray machines, but through well-funded intelligence efforts like the one in England that foiled a plot at Heathrow in August. In the airports themselves, security experts swear by carefully trained behavioral screeners, professionals who trawl the terminals perusing passports and passenger behavior and conducting interviews accordingly. Use of those screeners has made El Al the recognized leader in airline security--and so disdainful of American methods that the airline conducts its own additional checks at some U.S. airports.

By contrast, the TSA screeners are so poorly trained that this summer more than half of a group tested on recognizing explosives and other banned materials failed. And undercover federal agents have managed to get all sorts of weapons past security checkpoints--perhaps while workers were confiscating hair-care products. Meanwhile, much of what goes in the cargo hold of commercial planes hasn't been screened at all. And while there are allegedly terrorist watch lists in existence, the airlines don't get a look at them, and it's plain that the bored men and women comparing boarding passes with picture IDs aren't using them. In fact, many of them scarcely look up to see if the passenger matches the picture. Some days I suspect that Osama bin Laden could get through the line if the name on his driver's license was the same as that on his ticket and he wasn't packing Oil of Olay.

Of course, you won't hear those in the security lines at O'Hare or LAX say that the emperor has no clothes (or shoes), unless muttering to themselves, or, if really pressed, the mother next in line, wearily waking her sleeping child, putting a sippy cup through the X-ray machine and folding the stroller one-handed while stepping out of her sneakers. Everyone goes along to get along: no jokes, no comments, no demurrals. The dead eyes, the resigned sigh, the shrug as the sample size of shampoo goes into the bin--they're the trademarks of the security cynic, who will not be the least bit surprised when there is another plot, another plan, another flurry of purely reactive action.

Perhaps no other agency today so consistently and thoroughly reinforces the notion of government going through the motions without ingenuity or intelligence as the TSA does. Airport security lines should be places to check for egregious breaches, like handguns or box cutters in carry-ons, not a first--and last--line of defense. Even the people who run the agency must know what every business traveler understands: we're not going to keep America safe one pair of loafers at a time.