Paranoia Runs Deep

Guilty Until Proven Innocent!
July 2, 2016

A few weeks ago my wife and I flew back to Toronto from Charlottetown, PEI. We had a wonderful time there, and were treated with kind and generous hospitality. We left with a favourable impression of how that beautiful little city has grown more sophisticated and even more welcoming over the years.

At the small island airport we did like all air travellers do… we checked in at the ticket desk then lined up to pass through security. Fortunately, it was a domestic flight, so we didn’t have to deal with customs.

In the security line, we both removed our metallic items in anticipation of the scanners. I removed my belt because of its buckle, plus my jacket and glasses. My wife passed through the walk-through scanner first without incident. But for some reason it beeped as I walked through. So I was called over to the side and asked if I wished for a manual pat-down or x-ray booth scan. I’m not modest so I chose the booth.

“Okay, step inside, hands up, stand still.” I stepped inside and struck the pose. The camera tracked slowly around me. Beep. “Please step out.” Then the short wait for the x-ray. I could see the screen when my somewhat naked image popped up, and was a bit surprised to see that my lower left leg was outlined in a bright red rectangle. I sensed a change in the temperament of the attendant. “Please stand erect and do not bend down,” I was told curtly. The agent then ran a metal scanner down my left leg. Nothing. “Please raise your pant leg.” I squatted to oblige as the agent stepped back in a defensive posture. I raised my pant leg to reveal… the pale, fleshy leg of a 65 year old man. No bomb. No smuggled goods. Nothing of any interest. Not good enough. I was ordered to lower my sock. Nothing. “Raise your pant leg higher.” Still nothing. The security agent seemed somehow annoyed. I had caused all this trouble for nothing, I really wasn’t smuggling a bomb or gun in my… er, leg. He looked disappointed. With a huff and a grumpy wave, I was summarily dismissed and allowed to gather my stuff and board the plane.

My question is, just how many pasty, out-of-shape, silver-haired male seniors attempt to smuggle bombs or guns aboard aircraft departing from Charlottetown, PEI each year? I’m kinda guessing… NONE! EVER!

So why was this gung-ho agent so eagerly on the hunt for some phantom boogeyman? Just what kind of morning pep talk do these people get before each shift that works them into a paranoid-enough state to view each of us as a potential threat to the lives of hundreds of innocent people? How has it come to this that ordinary travelers simply boarding a sky bus for a ride home are unapologetically regarded as potential murderers?

If you’ve read my previous blogs you know that I’ve repeatedly questioned the lethal authority that we, the civilian public, bestow upon our law enforcement officials that allows them to wield over us weapons, brawn, and tactics that can maim or even kill us at the drop of a hat should we ever fall under suspicion of violent or criminal behaviour. But at least these officers themselves fall under public scrutiny and cannot arbitrarily lower the hammer of justice upon us without public oversight coming to bear upon them. But these private airport security agents fall outside that public scrutiny. They do not have to account for any errors in judgement they may make. In that sense, while they hold our fates in their hands, they themselves are above the law.

It shouldn’t be this way people! We’ve allowed our well-intentioned remedy for rampant fear & paranoia to get the better of us. We’ve given our guardians far too much discretionary power over us. We allow them to subject us to humiliating and degrading body searches every time we fly. And – what’s even more alarming – we act as if it’s all perfectly normal. Trust me, it’s not normal people! It’s anything but!

Of course, we rationalize that it’s all because of 9/11. But it actually harkens back to the hijackings of the 1980s… the twin towers attacks only made things worse. Much worse. But why just airports, I wondered? What about all those mass shootings and bombings in public places? Will we soon be grovelling to that kind of terrorism too? And where will it end? Security scans before going into a movie theatre? Or into a grocery store or public library? Will our kids need to get x-rayed and groped as they enter school each morning? In fact, will we all eventually have to submit our bodies & possessions to invasive inspections before entering any crowded public space?

If you seriously think that preventive measures like these are inevitable – and perhaps even justifiable – then you have some serious reflecting to do on just what civilized society really means, my friend. Quite to the contrary, we have to get this out-of-control monster back in its cage. And right now, before it gets even worse.

Case in point: A news story making headlines recently recounts how last year an 18 year old handicapped girl was roughed up, injured, and arrested at Memphis International Airport for the “crime” of getting confused and alarmed by an overly-aggressive TSA security inspection.

Hannah Cohen was flying home with her mom, Shirley, after Hannah’s final chemo treatment following the removal of a cancerous brain tumour that rendered her blind in one eye, partially deaf, limited in her movements, and easily disoriented and confused. Still, the two women considered the treatments a success, and were eager to return home for a victory celebration, happy that after 17 years of taking similar flights from that same airport, their ordeal was hopefully over. Little did they know what the TSA had in store for them that day.

Mom Shirley had already gone through security and was reclaiming her things when Hannah triggered a scanner alarm. The girl was aware that her blouse had sequins on it, so she offered to remove the garment because she was wearing another blouse underneath. But she was told to keep her shirt on, and was instead ordered to undergo follow-up scanning.

As in my case, the followup scans became more serious & threatening. The girl tried to cooperate but, at one point, was unable to hear the instructions being given to her and, because of her condition, grew alarmed as the TSA agents started to manhandle her.

As her anxiety rose, her mother offered to assist her daughter but was told to back away and stay out of it. The young girl then began to panic and tried to walk out of the security area. That’s when the TSA thugs moved in and tackled her to the floor, inflicting serious and bloody injuries to her head and face (remember, this girl had recently undergone brain surgery). Her distraught and helpless mother – still prevented from helping poor Hannah in any way – could only snap a grim photo of her distressed and injured daughter.

As if this wasn’t enough, the girl was then arrested and thrown in jail. The next day she was hauled in front of a magistrate who initially treated her as yet another uncooperative trouble-maker. But as soon as the judge saw the girl’s wounds, heard her medical history, and listened to her account of the incident, he advised the girl and her mother to get a good lawyer, then dropped all the charges against her.

The mother and girl have since launched a lawsuit against the TSA, suing them for a modest $100,000 to cover their costs. Frankly, I’d be suing the bastards for millions!

Again, my question is… just how many 18 year old handicapped girls has Memphis International Airport apprehended trying to smuggle weapons aboard any of their outbound flights? Again, I hazard the guess NONE! EVER!

So why are these security agents so trigger happy? Why are they so ready, at the sound of a beep, to treat everyday people as terrorists? Does it liven up a boring day? Does it justify their paychecks? Or are they slaves to such rigid policies & tactics, and to sensitive scanning machines that trip at the slightest provocation like the pasty leg of an old man, or the sequins on a young girl’s blouse, that they must call upon all the muscle & weaponry available to them just in case this may be “the big one”? Do they seriously believe – or perhaps are they possibly hoping – that this young handicapped girl, or that grey-haired old man, might just be the next 9/11 terrorist? Really? I mean REALLY!!??

I’ve had my favourite pen knife confiscated (read “stolen”). My wife has had a marker taken from her purse. I’ve been frisked and scanned and patted down on numerous occasions. This happens to probably hundreds of thousands of air travelers each and every day, and yet none – NONE! – of them is a terrorist. And although extreme cases like Hannah Cohen’s are rare, they continue to happen. I call it the appearance of action. They’re taking stuff from us, and treating us all like criminals, so the system must be working. Right?

WTF people? How scared are we of our own shadows that we tolerate this kind of treatment? Are we so afraid that we see evil in the face of every stranger? Are we willing to put up with this kind of treatment so long as the security people catch the dozens of terrorists that we are certain are trying to board our plane?

We even rationalize the situation. People in security lines can often be heard saying “Oh, I don’t mind. It’s a small price to pay for keeping our skies safe. Right?” Sorry, but this just sounds to me like they’re trying overly-hard not to piss off the bullies. I would challenge them to say that again if they ever get hauled out of a security line and forced into a tiny cubical for triggering a scanner for no good reason, then strip-searched by some college dropout who shoves a sensor probe up their ass. Let’s see how understanding they’ll be then.

And it’s not like we have any say in the matter. Once you pass through that walk-through security scanner you enter a no-man’s land where your rights as a free citizen cease to exist. In that security zone you’re obliged to do whatever they tell you. And, as Hannah Cohen discovered, you can’t even opt to retreat back to the safety of the general Departures area. They won’t let you. Once you’re in their clutches, you’re the helpless hostage of Homeland Security.

Sure, Bills have been put forward in Congress to establish that “airport security screeners are not immune to any US law”, and Nov. 24 (the day before Thanksgiving) has been declared National Opt-Out Day against invasive body scanning, but nothing has been done, and these agents are still immune to the law. So far, they’ve still got us where they want us.

And they wonder why incidents of air rage are on the rise. Do they really think that after an hour or more standing in line, then being treated with rude suspicion & disrespect, and then being herded into a tiny, cramped seat, shoulder-to-shoulder with the stranger beside you and practically nursing in your lap the person reclining in the seat in front of you, that you’re going to smile and be happy about it? But I do digress.

All this paranoid nonsense is getting out of hand! We’ve given far too much control, far too much authority, and far too much weaponry & technology to overly trigger-happy people who aren’t even held accountable for their mistakes or overreactions. THIS DEGRADING PRACTICE CANNOT BE PERMITTED TO CONTINUE!

If this is how it is… if this is how it’s going to remain… then the terrorist really did win. Because, when you think about it, if the goal of terrorism is to incite fear & paranoia, then that’s exactly what they’ve succeeded in doing. They’ve got us doing the most despicable things to each other all in the name of “safety” and “national security”. What a joke. They must laugh their asses off every time they read about an incident like Hannah’s.

I, for one, cannot subscribe to a world where we treat each other as the enemy. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be. We should be trying to reclaim as much dignity & respect as we can from out of the chaos & anarchy that the terrorists are trying to incite. It’s something we must commit ourselves to doing by not ignoring the issue, and by taking a stance and insisting that things change for the better. How many times can we read stories like Hannah’s and say “Oh, that’s a terrible shame”, then turn our backs on the situation and put it out of our minds?

Granted, we do need security to guarantee our safety on planes. But also on busses and trains, in theatres, in shopping malls, schools, restaurants, sports venues, and market places. That said, there must be less intrusive, less degrading, and less potentially dangerous ways of ensuring our safety in public places than the current approach.

Some overseas airports employ behavioural scanning practices whereby highly-trained agents watch boarding passengers for signs of elevated stress & anxiety that anyone planning to attack or blow up a plane would be experiencing as they approach that appointed moment. And sophisticated A.I. systems can snap photos and then use facial scanning and body analysis algorithms to look for signs of telltale behaviour. It’s not foolproof yet, but it can’t be any worse, and it might just be better than the current practices. I’m just saying that there must be ways other than manhandling innocent people and treating them like terrorists until they can prove that they aren’t a threat… better ways than the unprincipled and uncivilized practice of “guilty until proven innocent“.

On a more factual note, I’d like to know where the hard numbers are that show how many genuine acts of terrorism have been thwarted by these invasive security tactics. Where is the corroborating evidence that supports & justifies this kind of unjust treatment of millions of innocent citizens who are just going about their ordinary lives?

Because, other than the confiscation (read “authorized theft”) of the occasional Swiss Army pocket knife, tiny pair of sewing scissors found in the bottom of a hand bag, or bottle of water removed from the hands of a thirsty traveller, I’m guessing there’s pretty close to NONE! Otherwise we’d sure-as-shootin’ be hearing about it on the 6 o’clock news from security agencies who want to justify their existence and get their lucrative contracts renewed.

The fact that we don’t hear these numbers every day tells me that there aren’t any. Just weak accounts of people like young Hannah Cohen who found themselves triggering a security sensor at the wrong time and falling under the paranoid hammer of “justice” when it came crashing down upon her. For every underwear or shoe bomber who gets caught, there are billions of air travelers who are considered suspects.

One could argue that it’s the security measures that are keeping incidents of terrorism in check. But that claim is unprovable. Instead it reminds me of that joke where a guy is standing on a street corner snapping his fingers. What are you doing, he’s asked. Keeping away elephants, he says. But there aren’t any elephants for thousands of miles, he’s told. See, it’s working, he replies. Yup, same logic.

Let’s look at some numbers for ourselves. To be honest, there are likely only a small number of people in the US and Canada who mean us harm and who are actually willing to die to inflict it (that’s the critical part). Being generous, let’s say there are 1000 suicidal bad guys in the country. And, being generous again let’s estimate that, on any given day, 1 of those terrorists seriously intends to blow themselves up in a plane. Don’t fret, that still allows for a substantially paranoid estimate of 365 such attacks each year. (Thought maybe I was being soft on the terrorists, did you?)

Now, according to statistics, on any given day there are close to 1,000,000 air travelers, flight crew, ground crew, and baggage handlers inside or around planes. That means we’re looking for 1 crazy person in a million. That’s like 1 person in a city the size of Calgary. To put our current security practices into perspective, it’s as if we were to detain, scrutinize, harass, embarrass, aggravate, and humiliate every man, woman, and child in Calgary every day in order to catch just 1 trouble maker. Do you think the citizens of Calgary would turn a blind eye to this practice and quietly tolerate it? Not on your life! They’d be outraged, and would insist that the authorities find a better, more workable solution to their security needs.

Honestly, if I were a conspiracy theorist, I might suspect that the powers that be are just using this degrading practice to show us who’s boss and to keep us in our place. We’re watching you, they’re saying. We can take your stuff away from you and you can’t do a thing about it. We can take naked pictures of you and your kids and sit around ogling them. We can even fondle your body, breasts, balls, or butts with or without your helpless permission. So you’d better not step out of line.

But it would be silly to think that, right?

I truly pray that none of you ever fall victim to the misinterpreted beep of an overly-sensitive airport security scanner and experience anything close to what Hannah Cohen did. But, if that ever happens, I can guarantee that you will suddenly find yourself in sympathy with my outrage regarding this paranoid madness.

I’m just sayin’