Here are my experiences with airport security at various spots around the world during the past several years.
It is a hot day in early September, and I’m standing at O’Hare in a line of approximately one hundred tired and exhausted passengers after a nine-hour flight from Europe. We are going through the eighth or fifteenth level of the interminable security procedures that are now mandatory everywhere—shoes removed, belt removed, pockets emptied, all for the umpteenth time in the past few hours. The majority of the passengers in line with me are Asian, and many appear to have only a rudimentary grasp of English.
The security official is a morbidly obese Caucasian twenty-something who looks like Penn, Teller, and Gérard Depardieu all stuffed into the same undersized jacket and pants. His shirt is untucked. He has visible tattoos, an eyebrow piercing, and wears Converse sneakers. America has devoted immeasurable time and money to tightening its borders post-9/11, yet it still has no problem employing airport officials whose attire would seem informal even at an OWS protest.
He is scrutinizing someone’s passport for what feels like an eternity with the furrowed-brow intensity of someone trying to read Anna Karenina with the book upside down. When the increasingly impatient and irritable crowd surges forward slightly, he looks up and bellows, “Yo! Don’t bum-rush me, people!”
The passengers look befuddled. They likely don’t have the slightest idea what “bum-rush” means. Their English might well be perfect, but maybe they are still adjusting to a country where airport security officials dress like homeless vagrants who use hip-hop slang from 1986.
I am forced to present my Canadian passport to a gentleman of apparently Mexican origin. Reminding him about the other country that borders the USA—the one where people are generally allowed to cross the border without getting shot—probably doesn’t help. Within seconds it becomes clear that he has quite the tortilla chip on his shoulder and isn’t shy about taking his resentment out on everyone in his line. (The Chinese couple several spots ahead of me are visibly in tears as he holds up the line berating them.)
I reach the front of the line and offer my passport. “Who told you to get into this line?” he bellows. When I point to the uniformed woman who directed me into the line, he insists that her uniform is the wrong color for directing people into lines. He’s lying. A quick survey of the room reveals all of the staff are wearing the same color uniform. He appears to take great delight in prolonging my interrogation for what feels like an hour. My suffering is slightly softened by the fact that I’m being yelled at by a guy with a Ricky Ricardo accent.
I fly into Ciampino Airport on a sweltering day in early May. The tanned and surly border official wears his hat at what male homosexuals might refer to as a “jaunty” angle. Distracted by the blonde standing behind me, he barely grunts while pretending to read my passport. He winks at the blonde while dismissively waving me through. He is straight out of ethnic-stereotype central casting. So long as you bring an attractive female companion, you can apparently waltz into Italy unscathed holding a suitcase stuffed with crystal meth and Kalashnikovs.
The Polish female officers in the airport are needlessly over-attractive for the job’s requirements—they’re needlessly over-attractive for almost any job that requires clothing. They recall the icy-blonde fembots from Austin Powers. Some of them even have guns, albeit not jutting out of their brassieres. The dour, taciturn officials of both sexes are as friendly as Slavs tend to be—which is to say, not at all. Still, their listlessness makes it Europe’s most efficient border crossing in my experience. I pass through the security gate after a curt acknowledgement of my passport.
Frankfurt Airport is a dark, dreary, foul-smelling place, sort of like the airports of Warsaw or Moscow but with alarmingly less attractive female staff. The official at my gate, a woman who could be the unholy love child of Ayn Rand and Steve Buscemi, hollers at everyone in German to board the plane, then to not board the plane, then to board more slowly, then to hurry up, then to slow down, then to start a new line and begin all over again. Frau Blücher barks her commands with that distinctly German blend of good cheer and tactfulness that makes even the simplest travel procedure feel as though you’re being herded onto a cattle car to Auschwitz.
For all the derogatory things one can say about their cuisine, their climate, and their dentistry, the English at least have the right idea about how to make airport travel’s humiliations slightly more bearable. The security at Heathrow are so excessively polite that being fondled, grabbed, and patted by them is almost enjoyable, and I mean that in an entirely non-homoerotic way. As the agreeable man in uniform gives me the once-over while groping for suspicious bulges, it’s one long litany of “terribly sorry” and “forgive me, dear sir” and “frightfully sorry about all this bother.” I feel like apologizing for having carelessly allowed my scrotum to wander into the path of his hand.
In stark contrast to Chicago and Detroit’s abrasiveness, DC’s security takes a different tack in trying to stop bomb-hurling fanatics from boarding planes. Let’s call it the stupid-question method:
Are these your bags? Did you pack them yourself? Did anyone else help you pack these bags? Are you certain that nobody but yourself packed these bags? And these bags are definitely yours, right? Did you pack them yourself?
It goes on and on with such mind-numbing repetition that I find myself wondering if I did in fact allow a swarthy Middle Eastern gentleman wearing aviator sunglasses and a keffiyeh to help me fold my underwear but had somehow forgotten about it in all the day’s excitement.
But perhaps this approach isn’t as stupid as it initially appears. Like the East German Stasi or Russian KGB agents who could supposedly interrogate an innocent suspect until the poor fellow would admit to anything just to make them go away, this may be the future of airport security—weeding out potential terrorists by boring them to death.
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