Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Non-Viable Option

Today is - according to those in the know - the busiest travel day of the year. Apparently for many of us getting over the river and through the woods to Grandma's house requires us - as a first step - to fly from Point A to Point B....and perhaps Point C and beyond as well. I have neither flown nor been at an airport on the day prior to Thanksgiving since 1988. How am I so certain of my timeline? Simple. In the Fall of '88 I was in my final year at CU-Boulder (and yes, regardless of what mean things Jill says about me I did graduate in four years and yes I do put my degree in Political Science to good use every makes a lovely serving tray). On Thanksgiving Eve I poked Horace Greeley in the eye, which was not as easy to do as one might think considering how long he had been dead, and went West to East.

Luckily for me, my travel plans were such that I flew from Stapleton Airport in Denver to Pittsburgh, chilled on the ground in P-Burgh for about an hour before heading south to Atlanta Georgia. Was the Kenny family celebrating the giving of thanks in a Southern clime that November? No. Hot-lanta was simply the travel equivalent of third base - my penultimate stop before flying north to Newark. All these years later I cannot recall whether the first thing I said to Mom upon arriving home on mid-afternoon on Thanksgiving was, "Happy Thanksgiving!" or, "Pass the stuffing!" but considering that dinner started while I was still somewhere over Philadelphia the latter would have been as timely as the former.

Today my travel will be limited to the trek north on 287 to the office in the morning's wee small hours and its companion leg south on 287 to the homestead at day's end. No flying for this boy, which may turn out to be a great thing for any number of reasons. It has been widely reported that today - on the year's busiest day to travel - a loosely organized protest shall take place at airports nationwide. While Hallmark may not have had time enough to print 1,000,000 cards to sell at $4.95 a pop, today is to be our first-ever "Opt-Out Day". Color me not enthralled (and if you are looking for it, that is the color located between blue-purple and burnt sienna in the 64-crayon box). And for good measure, add in not amused.

Far be it from me to make an argument about the non-intrusive nature of the recently implemented security measures courtesy of our friends at the TSA. Hell, the man who runs the agency has publicly conceded that whether one opts for a pat-down or for a trip through the full body scanner is the invasion of privacy equivalent of the old Far Side cartoon set in Hell where Satan says to the new arrivals, "Inferno or no inferno? Just kidding, they are all inferno." It seems to me though that the issue is not whether these procedures are intrusive and one that all of us wish we could avoid altogether. The issue - rather - is whether they are necessary.

We live in a world in which every public security/public safety issue is looked at through a set of commemorative post-September 11 sunglasses. Lest you think otherwise, while they are available in many styles they do not come in rose-colored. As someone who is not entrusted with the responsibility for trying to ensure that the millions of people who pass through this nation's airports every day - including those who enter the United States from a point of origin outside of our nation's borders - I cannot speak intelligently as to whether these measures are necessary and/or whether they are themselves the best methods available for providing a measure of security to everyone who flies. I can appreciate the fact however that the men and women who are entrusted with that responsibility have a responsibility that comes with a "no Mulligan" rule. The margin for error? Think razor-thin and now divide it in half. And half again. And half again. You get the idea.

I understand and empathize with the civil liberties folks on this issue as well. I saw the stories on the news this past weekend of fliers who were particularly humiliated by the pat-down process, including the flight attendant who was forced to remove her breast prosthesis by a TSA employee at the Charlotte North Carolina and the middle-aged man whose cancer has left him dependent on a catheter and whose pat-down search was so rough that it caused his urine bag to break and to spill urine on him and his clothes, which clothes he then was required to sit in while he flew to his destination - having already checked his luggage. There is a legitimate concern - heightened for those who are already battling one form of cancer or another - about the radiation levels generated by the full-body scanner, which may leave those folks no alternative but to subject themselves to a comprehensive pat-down. If the cure is worse than the disease, then we need to rethink the treatment course. It seems to me - however - that those rather drastic examples notwithstanding it is far too early to tell.

Today, in an effort to make their point while basically jamming a thumb in the eye of other people who are simply trying to make it to wherever they hope to spend Thanksgiving, people at airports nationwide shall "opt-out" of going through the full-body scanner and insist on being given the comprehensive pat-down. I saw a report on CBS News on Monday morning that the TSA estimates that while the full-body scan takes approximately ten seconds the comprehensive pat-down averages four minutes to complete. Two hundred and forty seconds versus ten seconds - multiplied by however many individuals in front of you at your airport's security checkpoint decide to join the movement. Suddenly for you and yours "Happy Thanksgiving" seems to be more of a hope than a certainty.

Among the many great things about this nation - and one for which we should all be happy on this Turkey Day - are our freedoms to speak, to assemble and to practice civil disobedience. I have more than a passing familiarity with the Constitution and the jurisprudence that has grown up around it these past couple of centuries and I would fight as fervently as the next man to uphold it and your rights and my rights as established by it. That being said, my long-deceased father used to be fond of cautioning me to stay away from, "Cutting your nose to spite your face." How doing something that really screws your fellow air travelers - and does nothing by the way to the folks on the ground for the TSA - does not fit squarely within the parameters of Dad's cautionary tale escapes me. Note to those who intend to opt-out: the men and women of the TSA who man the security checkpoints at the airport are not the ones trying to get through the terminal and to the gate to actually get on a plane. Unless they get paid by the person they inspect - as opposed to an hourly rate - methinks that they shall give not a rat's a** how long the process takes.

I have a hope that those who have threatened to christen the 2010 Holiday season as the one that sees the launch of "Opt-Out Day" think better of it and put their heads, their hearts and their voices to a more productive form of protest. I am happy that the decision of how to balance security with privacy is not mine to make. Both are important goals and marrying the two for purposes of this exercise is a mission of paramount importance to all of us - whether we ourselves are flying anywhere this Thanksgiving.

We all win when everybody wins. And we cannot all win when some of us opt out. The answer is not "out" there. It is in here somewhere. It is in the best interests of all of us to work together to find it.

Safe travels.....


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