Peggy Noonan on Airport Security

Peggy Noonan has a piece in today’s OpinionJournal subtitled, “Look at the airports. Why would terrorists bother with seaports?”

Describing her lousy experience with TSA security agents on a recent cross-country flight, she writes,

This was East Germany in 1960. It was the dictatorship of the clerks, and the clerks were not in a good mood.

Quite right. I don’t fly nearly as often as Noonan but I’ve taken somewhere on the order of fifty flights since 9/11. It is amazing how incompetent and rude the security screeners are. As I predicted when there was so much pressure to make the screeners federal employees, we basically hired the same inept people back but with the arrogance that comes with a badge and incredible job security.

On a recent flight to Little Rock to attend a wedding, my now-wife’s sister was harassed because she did not want to take off her flip-flop sandals and walk around the dirty airport in her bare feet. That she fit none of the profiles of Islamist terrorists and that a would-be shoe bomber would be unlikely to choose sandals as her instrument of choice was clearly beyond the intellectual scope of the screeners.

It’s not just that the process is incredibly insulting to paying customers. Or that federal agents are allowed to force people to undergo unreasonable searches despite anything approaching reasonable suspicion, let alone probable cause. It’s that all this actually detracts from providing actual security.

Noonan again:

I am almost always picked for extra screening. I must be on a list of middle aged Irish-American women terrorists. I know a message is being sent: We don’t do ethnic profiling in America. But that is not, I suspect, the message anyone receives. The message people receive is: This is all nonsense. What they think is: This is all kabuki. We’re being harassed and delayed so politicians can feel good. The security personnel themselves seem to know it’s nonsense: they’re always bored and distracted as they go through my clothing, my stockings, my computer, my earrings. They don’t treat me like a terror possibility, they treat me like a sad hunk of meat.

I don’t think most of us get extra screening because they think we are terrorists. I think we get it because they know we’re not. They screen people who are not terrorists because it helps them pretend they are protecting us, in the same way doctors in the middle ages used to wear tall hats: because they couldn’t cure you. It’s all show.

Sadly, yes.

Update: An interesting exception to this is Washington’s Dulles International, which was the departure point for two of the four planes used in the 9/11 attacks. Even flying during peak travel times, like the Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving, they get people through quickly and efficiently. The other two D.C. area airports, Reagan National and Baltimore-Washington International, do not. And don’t even get me started on Atlanta.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. howard_coward says:

    Why attack a port? Think a freighter full of PETN. Think a vessel full of Sarin.

  2. John Burgess says:

    I’ve been doing rather a lot of travel in the past year–with 14 flights already this year. My local airport (SRQ, in Sarasota, FL) is okay, with congestion just before flight time. I transit Atlanta and don’t have to deal with passing through TSA. Reagan National is just long lines, but not odious.

    Heathrow tends to be pretty easy, except for flights to/from the Middle East. There are extra layers of security for those flights.

    Within Saudi Arabia, there’s basic screening, though the magnetometer settings are so low that more than a few dental fillings will set them off. But flying out of the KSA, it’s a matter of all hand baggage being thoroughly searched and every passenger being frisked, not just wanded.

    The worst TSA I’ve had, though, was in Philadelphia. Excessive, even aggressive inspection and far too much attitude to suit me.

    There are triggers that will line you up for Secondary Security Screening, even if you fit no profile. My former Diplomatic passport, apparently, was one of those triggers. I never had a flight that didn’t get me super-screened.

  3. slickdpdx says:

    I am sick of reading people moaning about increased airport screening and security. Its inconvenient. Everyone is in a bad mood. The staff is surly. Peggy and other professional pundits should save it for boring lunch conversations. I notice that alternatives are rarely discussed in these screeds.

  4. Having just flown to California, I noticed the ironic sign of the week in my hotel:

    Future TSA employees: please proceed to fourth floor for self check-in.

    So THEY get to do self check-in, eh? 😉

    The best way to get through fast is to have all your extra clothes off and ready to go through the X-ray machine before you get to said machine. I usually have everything in my in flight bag, and I add my shoes, keys, wallet, etc. If you don’t buzz going through, chances are you’ll get through quick.

    Not the most convient, but sure beats everyone behind me waiting as I pull things out of my bag, take off my shoes, all while I’m next for the metal detector and am holding everyone else up.

  5. James Joyner says:

    slickdpdx: But they DO provide alternatives: Profiling, separate lines for frequent travelers who are already screened, air marshals, reinforced cockpit doors, etc.

    B: I do that, too. But most people in the airport at any given time are infrequent fliers who don’t know how to play the game.

  6. DC Loser says:

    That’s funny, when I was last went to East Germany in 88, the border guards were all relatively courteous and behaved with typical Prussian efficiency. I wish the same could be said of TSA. I’ve seen some good ones and some really bad ones. It’s just so random and unpredictable, but then again, maybe that’s the point.

  7. Mark says:

    > Reagan National is just long lines, but not
    > odious.

    Weird – I fly out of National at least once a month and only had long lines once in the last 1.5 years. Every other time the lines are about the shortest anywhere.

  8. McGehee says:

    Future TSA employees: please proceed to fourth floor for self check-in.

    Just out of curiosity: did your hotel actually have a fourth floor? 😉

  9. NoZe says:

    Actually, I’ve flown out of all three DC area airpots in the last couple of years…and Dulles is the only one in which I’ve been searched!

  10. Eddie Thomas says:

    I don’t fly that often, but the one time I was pulled aside for extra screening, my ticket had SSS printed on it and one of the “handlers” directed me to the line for extra screening after using a highlighter to highlight those letters. Is SSS printed on all the tickets, or just the ones for extra screening? If the latter, it really is a joke.

    Also, my wife routinely gets her plane tickets over the internet. She claims that when she isn’t allowed to print her ticket at home are the times when she will be pulled aside for extra screening. Have others had a similar experience?

  11. G A PHILLIPS says:

    Dude, remember when they searched ALgore, twice, when he went to Milwaukee, hehehahohohhahahahAAA…………

  12. Poly says:

    Eddie – you are right, SSS is the only indication you are going to get the full monty.

    I frequently fly out of atlanta, the lines are always long, and they are almost always rude.
    Since most of my travels are for business, and I have to bill for travel time, a 45 minute flight turns to 4 or 5 hours rather quickly. This is why I have turned to driving to my clients location if its fairly close.
    I have had luggage searched, and items removed(stolen), had luggage lost several times, and rarely get a return flight that arrives on time.

  13. Gawaine says:

    Haven’t had that good of an experience with Dulles – maybe it’s because I’m usually on the first plane of the morning, but I’ve found I need to allow at least two hours from walking in the door to getting to the gate – where I usually need to stand in line for a seat assignment.

    Reagan National has three terminals – Terminal A is great, and I’ve found I’m at the gate in less than half-an hour, even when the commuter flights are filling up. Terminals B and C, though, I could live without.

    The rest of the comments, of course, I agree with. I’ve had people flip my laptops over at Dulles. There’s a shoe print on top of my tablet pc from the last time I flew, and I’m not sure how it got there. And yet, I don’t feel any safer.

  14. DC Loser says:

    Dulles is okay, and the lines have gottan shorter now that Independence Air went under. After 9/11, National was the best airport to fly out of due to the short lines. I regularly used US Air out of Terminal C. Usually print my boarding pass ahead of time or use the automated check in and no checked luggage. Breezed right through security by placing all my metal in my backpack and wearing laceless shoes.