The Mongrel Dogs at Sea (6): Security Silliness

I was going to write today about my visit to the USS Arizona and USS Missouri memorials and how moving it was. I suppose I’ll get to that, though maybe not today. Right now I’m going to blog about one of the deepening madnesses of the 21st century, the traveler security checkpoint.

Let me say at the outset that I understand why we have these checkpoints and, in their basic incarnation, I agree they’re a good thing. Although I don’t believe for an instant they necessarily stop anyone, they at least make the terrorists have to work harder and be smarter, and that at least reduces the number of incidents, not to mention mindless me-tooistic attacks. Although one wonders if it’s a net positive to breed a harder-working, smarter terrorist.

But since 9/11, this process has spiraled wildly out of control with little check on it. The list of banned items grows daily, follows no discernible pattern, and irritates travelers without adding an iota of actual safety. As with the super-tight security in the months following the WTC attacks, it’s more about appearing to do something to improve security rather than actually doing anything.

Today’s example that set me off: I’m in Honolulu, near the end of my Hawaiian adventure, and I’m trying to wrap up my souvenir gift list. I come across a nice set of hand-crafted wooden candle holders – three concentric rings that each hold a little tea candle. This strikes me as appropriate for one of the names on my list, so I buy the handle, check the name off the list, and take my purchase over to the port security checkpoint, a mere 100 yards away.

You might guess what happens next.

I dutifully empty all of my pockets into the little plastic boxes. I also drop in my hat and, having learnt at Newark/EWR that this saves time, I also unbuckle my suspenders and throw them in the box. Happily today I am not made to shed my shoes or otherwise further disrobe. I step through the metal detector, which remains mercifully quiescent, and start reassembling the bits of my life I’ve passed before the ever-watchful eyes of the Transportation Security Authority. I’ve just about rebuckled my suspenders when a ripple moves through the contracted security workers.

“Sir,” I am asked in a hushed tone, almost of disbelief, “does this bag contain … a candle?”

Actually, no, three candles, tiny little tea candles. I point out as much.

“You’ll have to step over here. Can I see your ID? Where did you get the candle? Is it in this bag?” While rattling off this list, the security person is rooting through my plastic shopping bag and comes across … da da da dum! … the candle holders. They’ve been intricately wrapped, ready to be put into a gift box, but that’s no barrier. The bag is untied, the paper peeled back, and the offending illuminary devices revealed for all to see. Another TSA guy has wandered over. “Did he bring a candle onboard?” he asks, incredulous.

When I ask why exactly this is a high crime, I’m told “security”. Nothing more is forthcoming. I’m also told that the TSA worker is going to have to confiscate the candles, but I can have a receipt. In theory, at least, Princess Cruises will pick up my candles – in addition to whatever other diabolical contraband that other nefarious passengers have tried to smuggle on board – and then return it to me at the gangway in Los Angeles. I take the receipt and watch the candles disappear. I have my doubts as to whether they’ll ever see the light of day. I suspect they’ll end up brightening up some cell in Gitmo.

Once I have passed the second layer of security and gotten on board, I walk over to the purser’s desk. I show him the receipt and ask how I get my candles returned in LA. He looks at me blankly. “You purchased candles in Los Angeles?” he asks. No, I purchased them about one football field’s length away, in a tiny dockside novelty store. “I don’t think we have anything from LA. Let me ask.” Ah, good. Happily the one-level-higher purser does know what’s going on and explains to the desk gofer that the insidious candle will be returned at the gangplank. “So I should keep this?” says the desk gofer, holding the receipt I’d offered to him as physical proof of my story. No, no, the passenger needs that.

I’m assuming a copy of the receipt will attend the candle and help explain to Princess Cruise with whom the candle should be reunited. At least, it’s a paper trail in case I’m forced to go all habeuas corpus for the sake of my candles. Before leaving the desk, I ask again, “Why can’t I bring candles onboard?”

“Security.” The magic password. But I’m not taking that at face value any more.

“They’re tea candles. How are they a threat to security?”

“Well, you could light them in your cabin. An open flame could set the whole room on fire.”

OK, first off, that means they were confiscated for safety reasons, not security ones. It’s irksome to be lied to. Second, that’s flipping insane! I can bring matches or a lighter on board. I know because I seem to have a spidersense that lets me discover every single nook wherein smokers are allowed to congregate and puff away. The ship crew delivers to my cabin every day a highly flammable newsletter – not to mention, say, the toilet paper provided gratis. Hell, for that matter, they let you bring back rocks – I could strike sparks like a flint. The point is, if I wanted to start a fire, nothing is done to stop me by preventing me from having the candles.

And even if I did want to start a fire, what good would it do me? The rooms are individually wired with smoke detectors and sprinklers. There are several warnings to that effect both in the cabin and during the mandatory safety drill at cruise inception.

What’s my point? It’s twofold. First, we must never get so used to the need for security that we allow it to substitute for thought or honesty. If Princess Cruises is really concerned about the fire potential of the candles, then Princess Cruises should say that. No one should be hiding in the folds of the TSA’s ever present cloak. Second, we have to start getting rational. Anyone with a basic knowledge of chemistry can do a lot more damage with the common items that are allowed. We need to face up to a disturbing fact: Living in an advanced, industrial, and open society will entail some level of risk. The net cannot be drawn finely enough to eliminate that risk.

Is my candle saga a milestone in the struggle for human dignity and freedom? No. But in its own small way it does plug into that. If we’re not careful, step by step, well-intentioned policy by well-meaning intervention, we’re going to give up everything, and all for the illusion of security.