Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Bomb Swab

As I shuffled down the security line at the airport, I did the usual dance. Out of my backpack came my laptop; in went my keys, money clip and phone. I kicked off my shoes and placed them on the belt to the scanner, along with my suitcase and backpack. A quick self pat down to check for any leftover guns I might have missed, and I moved to the line for the metal detector. After a nod from the guard, I stepped smartly through the machine, brandishing my boarding pass in front of me like a process server with a summons.

But my road warrior persona was shattered by a "beep-beep-beep" from the detector. My smile fell as the officer put up a traffic cop hand to stop me from going any further. I felt like a common tourist as I quickly rechecked myself. Did I forget some change in a pocket? Was I wearing a non travel-friendly belt buckle? Did I neglect to remove all my hunting knives? Nothing turned up. And indeed my warden was shaking his head. "It's not you," he said even as he continued to survey the hoards in front of him. "You've been selected randomly for additional screening." He unclipped a radio mic from his shoulder and spoke into it: "Swab on lane 14."

Seems I had fallen prey to the latest procedure designed to keep us safe in the skies. The original focus on security was on obvious weapons such as knives and guns. That was broadened to include other common items which could be used in an offensive capacity like scissors and nail clippers. Of course, anyone familiar with James Bond or Jack Bauer also knows that you can create a lot of mayhem with a spoon, a dog leash or a roll of quarters. And it was comedian George Carlin who noted that if you really wanted to, you could probably kill somebody using the Sunday New York Times.

Then the game changed. After 9/11, the airlines installed hardened cockpit doors. And while weapons were still a concern, the realization came that you could blow up the plane itself without ever bothering the pilot. Exacerbated when the infamous Shoe Bomber tried to set his Nikes aflame, the authorities started to concentrate more on the possibility of explosives. And so they began a program called Explosive Trace Detection or ETD.

In ETD, a small piece of material is rubbed around the edge of a suitcase or package. The cloth is inserted into a highly sensitive instrument that can detect trace amounts of chemicals, such as the nitrates used in bombs. The test takes just a few seconds, and assuming your aren't packing a gift of fertilizer for your aunt's begonias, usually turns up negative. Seeking to keep the bad guys guessing, they added a similar random trial for hands this past February. And it was this particular program that selected me as the lucky 28th caller to win the prize.

Another guard took me over to the side and asked me to hold my hands out, palms up. He then wiped both with a small band-aid looking piece of material, then slid it into a detector. A few moments and a green light popped on. He thanked me, and I was good to go collect my stuff and head to my plane. As tests go, this one was a breeze.

Perhaps too much a breeze. According to the TSA, they have had to make some adjustments to reality. Since the machines are incredibly sensitive, they've had to turn down the dial just a bit. Seems they were getting a bunch of positive indications from people who used nitroglycerin as a heart medication. And farmers, those who have shot a weapon recently and even certain hand lotions can set off the alarms. But the agency says that the one test doesn't exist in a vacuum. Should the alarm get tripped, it would just mean further screening for that individual. And if you're more worried about germs than bombs, they say that unlike the swab they use for suitcases, the hand swabs are used once and then disposed.

While it's another invasion of privacy, the ACLU has signed off on it. That's because there is no profiling involved, no invasive testing and no invasion of privacy. Your hands are already out in the open. So other than exposing them as filthy, there is little in the way of compromising your basic rights. So if you listened to your mother and never leave the house with dirty underwear, if you're flying you may now want to apply that to your hands.


Marc Wollin of Bedford doesn't mind the airport screening, as long as he's not stuck behind a tourist. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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