Recently, I flew from Johannesburg, South Africa, where I’d been filming new episodes of The Peregrine Dame, home to Los Angeles. I’ve worked in SA before, and I knew what to expect from security at O.R. Tambo International Airport.
Prior to boarding, at each gate for international flights, passengers are separated into two lines by sex and given pat-downs. Carry-on luggage is then searched by hand. This is in addition to the standard security - x-ray machines and metal detectors - which I’d already cleared to get to the gate, as in any airport.
It’s thorough, but it’s not the toughest security I’ve ever been through in an airport. What took me by surprise, though, was who complained about what they perceived as extra measures instead of being thankful they’re in place.
The flight was a long haul, from Johannesburg into Washington D.C., via Dakar, Senegal. The majority of the passengers were Americans, going home from safari vacations.
“I fly all the time, and I’ve never seen this,” a Caucasian man with a flat Midwestern accent said. He was beside me, in the men’s line speaking to a woman from the U.S. just behind me.
He wondered if they did this for every flight? She told him they did; her friends who had been to South Africa before warned her about it. They agreed that it didn’t seem necessary and found it amusing, as a new experience.
It’s my opinion, given that we were about to fly into our nation’s capital, it was all quite necessary.
After our boarding passes were scanned, we entered the sky bridge, and were each given a small plastic card with a number on it.
“What’s this for?” the Midwesterner asked his new friend, snickering. “I guess it creates a job, huh? That’s it.”
At the door of the aircraft, we gave the cards to another staff member. It’s a head count to ensure that only the number of people who are checked in end up on the plane.
“There’s another job,” the Midwesterner said of the man taking the cards.
I kept my thoughts to myself, but the slight touch of lighthearted ridicule in his voice made me bristle. I, for one, was glad to see the precautions taken. I thought woefully that, except for a brief period immediately following September 11, I haven’t witnessed the Transportation Security Administration in the United States taking any more action than airport security did when I flew as a child 25 years ago, as a general rule.
Ten years away from those attacks, and I still get the same personal safety checks as I did in the 1980s, except occasionally when the threat level has been momentarily heightened. I found it reassuring that I can fly in and out of another country multiple times, with a span of a year-and-a-half between visits, and the security is consistent. In the years since 2001, I have yet to see the same uniformity in security throughout the airports of the United States, from one year to the next or one city to the next.
I wondered why it seems that, on a passenger-by-passenger basis, America has slipped back into a comfortable old routine, although I know that behind-the-scenes security has changed. The T.S.A. agents at Los Angeles International Airport barely acknowledged I was there, the morning I left the States for South Africa.
When we landed for a one-hour stopover in Dakar, Senegal, airport security boarded the plane after passengers who were disembarking in Dakar left. They searched every crevice of every empty seat. This is a regular routine for them. Then, every person who had a piece of luggage in the overhead compartment was asked to remove it so that each bag was accounted for and the compartments could be searched.
The woman sitting across the aisle from me, a former top executive at Time Warner Cable, looked me in the eyes and snapped “ridiculous!” as she stuffed her novel in the pocket in front of her and got up to yank her bag out of the bin. There was a chorus of grumbly discontent around me.
If anyone but the American citizens on the flight had anything to say about it, I couldn’t hear them. They may very well have, but I was surrounded with my countrymen who were pissing and moaning about removing their bags for a few minutes.
When I landed at Dulles in Washington D.C., I cleared immigration and customs, and changed terminals to catch my domestic flight, all without any further checks. I hopped on Twitter and sent out a tweet, musing about the Americans who’d been inconvenienced in the name of their own safety, and wondered if we hadn’t yet learned our lesson as a nation.
I got a reply to that tweet from someone I know; an American, telling me that as Americans we’re conditioned to expect liberty. My answer to that is I do not believe that someone searching my hand luggage one more time, or submitting to a professional pat-down, or having to remove my bag from the overhead bin in any way infringes on my liberty.
My Twitter follower then asked me what lesson it was that the terrorists were supposed to teach us? Was it fear?
My answer to that was of course not fear. Anyone who has ever seen an episode of The Peregrine Dame, or spoken to me at all about my philosophies on why travel is so vital, so necessary a human experience knows that I advocate travel as a means to break through fear; to learn about oneself and others. To use it to overcome hate and fear and bias on all levels from personal to cultural. To answer terror attacks on all societies with bravery and a sense of adventure.
Fear is the last lesson anyone should learn in life, and although a healthy dose of common sense and alertness are requirements for travel, fear certainly doesn’t belong in the equation.
The lesson I want Americans to learn is to be thankful. Thankful that extra safety precations exist. Thankful that there are governments out there who have been far more prepared for the bad stuff than ours for many more years. Thankful that their vigilance extends to us.
We should demand more of the T.S.A. Yes, it was hastily set up as a split-second reflex to September 11, but it is necessary. Yes, it needs work, but we have to accept that it serves a purpose. What we should be demanding is a stricter, completely uniform and consistent security process in the hubs of travel in the U.S.; and be thankful for it when it does come about.
And yes, although I know proponents of absolute liberty in the United States will howl at this: we must learn to give a little. We must realize that it’s not an inconvenience to have to submit to reasonable searches - even pat-downs. It’s a necessary thing that goes hand-in-hand with the privilege of being able to travel, whether around our country, or around the world. After all, it doesn’t revolve around us.