Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Watch Your Behavior. TSA Will Be.

I wasn't the most easygoing air traveler even before 9-11. My customary rush not to miss the flight, combined with the dread that I'll get a middle seat, along with an active imagination about all that can go wrong during takeoff and landing, made me an edgy flier even under ideal circumstances. But the mostly-mindless security rituals imposed on air passengers since 9-11 have notched-up my stress level three fold, at least. Each running of the airport security gauntlet brings my blood to a slow boil, as I brood about the handful of homicidal maniacs who on that day turned America into a nation of sheep. I imagine the new indignities we'll endure if someone ever sets off an underwear bomb.

TSA conditioning hasn't completely worn me down yet. I still seethe each time I have to remove my shoes, empty my pocket change and metal jewelry into the plastic bowl, take off my belt, lift my cap, spread my arms, surrender the potentially-explosive hair products I left in my carry-on. I still chafe each time I have to take orders from some overly-officious TSA securacrat, who didn't have the right stuff to be a cop or flunked the CIA entrance exam and defaulted to this instead.

I seethe silently for the most part, because to rebel, or register anger or frustration -- to tell those glorified postal workers what you really think of this elaborate charade -- invites suspicion, retaliation, further delay. But sometimes -- when my wife isn't there to squeeze my arm or shoot be a disapproving look -- I act out on these frustrations and say or do something uncool. Like the time I dropped my pants after a wand-wielding TSA worker asked that I unbuckle my belt.

That's why I'm a little worried about recent reports that TSA "Behavior Detection Officers" will soon be fanning out to American airports, on the lookout for passengers who exhibit "erratic" or "suspicious" behavior. As someone who exhibits erratic behavior even when not passing through TSA checkpoints, but in the course of everyday life, I fear that airport visits are about to get worse.

From The Washington Post:

"FORT LAUDERDALE, FLA. -- You might not see them, but they're studying you.

To identify potentially dangerous individuals, the Transportation Security Administration has stationed specially trained behavior-detection officers at 161 U.S. airports. The officers may be positioned anywhere, from the parking garage to the gate, trying to spot passengers who show an unusual level of nervousness or stress.

They do not focus on nationality, race, ethnicity or gender, said TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz. "We're not looking for a type of person, but at behaviors," she said.

Under the program, which started in Boston in 2003, a suspicious passenger might be given a secondary security screening or referred to police; detection officers do not have arrest powers."

My body language in an airport practically broadcasts tension, frustration, impatience and intolerance -- presenting the very picture of a homicidal hijacker on a martyrdom mission. I'm just the sort of brooding, jumpy, sweaty traveler some half-baked TSA behaviorist would pick out of a crowd. And my demeanor will only get more suspicious when I'm pulled aside by a TSA profiler -- armed with "four days of behavior training, which includes training to spot suicide terrorists, and . . . 24 hours of on-the-job preparation," according to the Post -- and subjected to additional search or interrogation. I'm likely to get mouthy. I'm likely to seem hostile. I'm likely to quickly have the TSA securacrat talking into his sleeve, calling for backup.

The Post cites several cases of TSA behaviorists flushing out suspicious characters:

"In one case, in March 2008, detection officers noticed a passenger about to board a flight from Fort Lauderdale to Charlotte, N.C. During a secondary screening, officers found 209 grams of the drug ecstasy, with a street value of $2.5 million, in a carry-on bag. The traveler was arrested.

In other instances, passengers have been arrested on charges of drug trafficking, possessing fraudulent documents and having outstanding warrants, Koshetz said.

In February 2008, detection officers at Miami International Airport noted that a passenger had suspicious documents and was acting oddly. When he was flagged for a secondary screening, he bolted.

Local police and TSA officers chased the man, who ran out of the terminal and jumped off a second-story road onto a sidewalk. He broke an arm and was arrested on charges of resisting arrest, disorderly conduct and possessing several identification documents."

Way to go, McGruff. But the paper doesn't cite a single case of profilers detecting an actual terrorist, or foiling a terror plot. A lot of suspicious characters travel through airports on any given day: a mule carrying cocaine; an illegal immigrant slipping into the country on a supposed business trip; someone high on ecstasy; a gambler heading to Vegas with $60,000 in cash. Some people may even begin to act suspicious in response to constantly being under state suspicion.

It's not TSA's job to apprehend anyone and everyone acting suspicious -- that casts too wide a net, in my view -- but to detect and foil potential terror plots against air passengers. And I doubt this new tack will be any more effective, in that regard, than TSA's mass confiscation of shampoo bottles and toenail clippers.

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