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After the quick weekend after attending the anti-war protest in Washington D.C, I was flying home this past Sunday evening out of Baltimore/Washington International Airport. It is one of the most security-conscious airports in the nation, given its proximity to Washington, D.C., one of the sites of the coordinated terrorist attack on September 11th, 2001. In 2002, BWI was the first airport in the nation to deploy federal security screeners and another layer of security with random (and perhaps profiled) screening at gates. That layer has since been largely phased out. Sunday evening seemed routine, though as events unfolded, it became a sobering post-9/11 reality-check, up close and personal.
I went to the security line with my carry-on full with my laptop and accessories, a book and a few CDs. Knowing the meticulous drill by heart, I removed my shoes, my belt, coinage, wallet and such; took off my suit coat, removed my laptop from the bag and placing them in tubs on the conveyor belt. I stepped through the detector without incident as my possessions were screened. The security agent studied the monitor with scrutiny and summoned another agent to assist with further investigation.
“Sir, is there bottled water in your carry-on?” he asked.
“No sir, I believe I took care of that earlier today,” I replied.
He removed the book and CDs and screened my bag again without incident. I was cleared. Puzzled, I asked what prompted further screening. He pointed to the removed items and said that when things are packed together, the system can misinterpret them for other objects. This seemed odd and even laughable since the items in question bore no resemblance to bottled water. But hell, better safe than sorry, right? I shrugged it off, making my way to the gate area for my flight to Newark/Liberty International Airport.
It was a short trip on Continental Flight 2491. With the breathtaking Manhattan skyline visible just miles away, we landed in Newark. I searched my suit coat for my ticket back to Austin. To my surprise I felt a metal object in a pocket. It was a standard bottle opener, four inches long and three-fourths of an inch wide, squared off at one end and sharp-pointed on the other. I suppose it takes little imagination to find a way to further sharpen it in an airplane’s lavatory and wreak havoc, if it is one’s intention. Saturday at my D.C. hotel I bought a beer from the pantry to end the night. The front desk supplied the bottle opener and I said would return it during Sunday’s 12:00pm check-out. I never did. On Sunday I signed the receipt and continued with my day unaware of what was still in my possession. Just fresh into Newark at the gate, we waited for the staircase to be wheeled to the door. The discovery left me in a state of disbelief. I thought about notifying fellow passengers and the flight crew of the unintended security breach, but quickly discarded the idea. I was due back into Austin on one of the night’s last flights and eager to get home, so I avoided the prospect of being detained and questioned overnight.
Anyone can point out with little or no debate that in the post-9/11 world, the security process is an imperfect science. But here we are, well over five years after that terrible morning in the late summer of 2001 and it is proven that the apparatus is penetrable; all too easily it seems. After massive reorganization and consolidation of federal agencies leading to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, two quagmires, over 6,000 American deaths and billions upon billions of dollars spent, I had to ask myself, “What the hell?”. Given the culture of vigilance, fear and paranoia that gripped the nation, one has to wonder, ‘How much safer are we?’.
News investigations have tested the waters in the sea of security, clearing with dangerous items at times. I am now left mildly shocked and awed by my own encounter with Homeland ‘Security’; further questioning overall, the unsound and even woeful policies enacted both at home and abroad by President Bush and our government. Needless to say I am not encouraged. What about you? When you travel, do you feel any safer than you did five years ago?
JONATHAN CRONIN is an activist and writer based in Austin, Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.