I used to love to fly. In the good old days—before box-cutters, underwear bombers and death-ray body scanners—I'd show up at the airport 30 minutes before takeoff, slip into the bathroom for a quick toke, and shuffle onto the plane with an illegal smile.
In the air, I'd gaze out the window for hours, tracking the cloud topography, landforms and miniaturized settlements with the Zen focus of an eagle scanning a meadow for a furry dinner.
Sitting in an airport now, doubly delayed and depressingly un-medicated, I ponder how much things have changed. There's a 30-year high school reunion awaiting me in Cleveland, but it's looking dubious. The first plane was delayed due to "traffic control" issues—an aviation euphemism for the side effects of capitalist greed and unsustainable growth—and the second by unruly weather.
Two minutes after being dropped off at the airport, my partner and I learned that we would miss our connection and spend the night in a Chicago hotel, on our dime, since "traffic control" and dangerous meteorological events are officially categorized as uncontrollable acts of the increasingly angry gods of aviation.
These days, flying is a nightmare. Considering storms, overbooking, shrinking passenger space, rising fares, ridiculous fees, lost baggage and the constantly shifting sands of the Transportation Insecurity Administration, you're damn lucky if you arrive anywhere on time with all of your stuff, and sufficient money, energy and peace of mind to enjoy your trip.
I expect rip-offs and incompetence—a standard American business model—but the security game really grinds me. "Well, sure, officer, by all means, please examine my rectum with your forceps and flashlight, and don't forget the chemical swab. In fact, I'm pretty sure I detected some terrorist activity in there just the other day, not long after I ate the Salmonella Special at Popeye's Chicken."
Personally, I don't mind the physical invasion so much. Between Jerry the redneck trucker (who lived next door when I was 9) and six months in federal prison, I've been patted down more times than I can remember. I much prefer it to the scary scanners, but I suspect I may be in the minority. As a passenger on flyertalk.com posted, "I have a full-length leg prosthesis; therefore I will never again board a plane without having my breasts and labia touched. Can you convince someone that I'm not really a risk? Until then, I will continue to maintain that the TSA discriminates against disabled passengers."
You can hardly blame people for souring on the whole terrorists-in-our-midst thing with so many security horror stories going around. The TSA seems far more interested in molesting children, harassing the mentally disabled, stealing plush toys from toddlers and examining the contents of geriatric diapers than actually mounting some sort of sensible security strategy.
Instead, it's "security theater," a term one security expert coined on 60 Minutes a couple of years ago. It's all about creating a convincing illusion of security, which I suspect is all that people really want in this delusional country, anyway. Tuck those terrorist fears away in a quart Ziploc. I have a T-shirt that makes this point for me virtually every time I fly. "I know I'm safe," it blares, "because I'm wearing my Homeland Securi-Tee™! No national brand gives you a greater illusion of safety!"
Every airport is different, and there's some new rigmarole every time I fly. Sometimes you skate through with your liquids improperly quarantined; sometimes TSA agents freak. In other countries, they don't play the shoe game or the baggie game. In Chicago, they swabbed my hands for explosives residue, a first for me. I asked the weary officer what sort of residue was on my hands after the swabbing, but he ignored me.
It'd be one thing if this nonsense made people safer, but it doesn't. Contraband gets through all the time in organized tests of the system, and spending billions annually on fancy equipment and crackerjack "behavior-detection" squads has produced not a single terrorist arrest. You're more likely to get blasted by lightning while being swarmed by killer bees on your way to pick up your lottery winnings than you are to become a victim of a terrorist attack.
I guess I should be grateful for Tucson's mellow little airport. Still, I'm going to put off my next flight for as long as possible—hopefully years—and regress to the overland strategies of my impoverished youth. Traveling on land may be slower—sometimes—but it feels faster, and I won't have to participate in some grand experiment in the devolution of humans into frightened, pathetic sheep.