Saturday, August 23, 2003

It's a Wand-erful Life

I used to fly a lot. In the last few years, though, my traveling schedule has become greatly reduced. And since 9/11, I've only been to North America once.

So when we were flagged at the San Francisco Airport at the beginning of our summer vacation for what is euphemistically called "Secondary Searching," I was mildly amused. A new post-9/11 experience. A chance to compliment the hard-working TSA employees for their due diligence.

But hey guys, leave my kids out of it, OK?

My crash course in airport security revealed that there are two types of screening. "Regular" involves the x-ray, of course, and maybe a bit of discrete wanding. In addition, every adult these days has to remove his or her shoes, at least at the airports I visited.

"Secondary" screening is for highly suspicious the Blum family. And as I said, even our kids had to remove their sandals before we were escorted to a cordoned off area where our bags were opened and we were thoroughly wanded.

My belt rang. Off with the belt.

Then I was patted down.

Watch it there buddy...

Still, I was having fun with the new experience and all. I felt like Alice in Wand-erland, where everything was laden with double entendres.

But when I looked over at Jody, she was scowling.

Maybe it was the fact she had to stand, legs spread, hands out at her side at a 90-degree angle while she was searched in full view of the revelers at the adjacent Gordon Biersch brewpub. Maybe it was because our kids were getting grilled too.

As we finally cleared security, Jody muttered "Why can't they do it like they do in Israel?"

Ah yes, why not indeed? Israeli security is world renowned for not only its thoroughness, but its expertise in singling out the most dangerous types and letting everyone else pass relatively unmaimed.

Indeed, the most pressing question many of my frequent flying English speaking compatriots would get would come from a perky security guard who'd ask "Do you speak Hebrew?" When we'd reply "No," the invariable follow up question would be "Why not?" (credit for pointing that one out goes to Jewish comedian Wayne Federman).

But for those selected for further security, the questioning in Israel can make the stateside TSA guys look like slobbering puppy dogs.

The grilling could be so off-putting to visiting businessmen that a number of the top hi-tech companies in Israel got together and instituted a system where they'd send a letter directly to the head of Israeli security at Ben Gurion alerting them to the fact that Mr. So and So was really truly a guest and was not to be treated like a potential terrorist.

The argument used against the Israeli style of selection is that it's not fair or impartial. That it discriminates based on ethnicity, generalizations and stereotypes. True, but what's better? Putting everyone through the shoes-off wands-at-the-ready routine? Interrogating a five-year-old in a Barney t-shirt?

Somehow, the Israeli method of selection seems a hundred times more efficient even if entirely politically incorrect and antithetical to the entire contemporary American ethos of impartiality.

As an Israeli who passes easily through security at Ben Gurion, I've argued in the past for selection over random checks. But that was until I learned that our being singled out may not have been so random after all.

"You can get flagged for any number of reasons," the somewhat bored Transportation Security Authority employee explained in response to my question Why us? "An expired driver's license, a one way ticket, a ticket purchased overseas."


We were flying one way from my parents in San Francisco to Burbank where Jody's mom lives. On a ticket bought in the Middle East.

On this trip, it seems, we suffered what less-passable types do in Israel. Because we most decidedly did not fit the profile of the average American.

The shoe was now on the other foot.

But for all my annoyance at U.S. airport security, that was nothing compared to what we experienced later during the summer while vacationing at the Universal Studios amusement park.

When the burly security guard demanded we open our bags, I was at first delighted. Finally, an acknowledgement of real world vulnerability in a post-9/11 world.

Until I realized what he was looking for.

"You can't take this inside," he said, pointing to our tuna sandwiches and bags of chips.

"But that's our lunch. Our kosher lunch."

But he had his orders. "No food allowed in the park."

After several back and forth exchanges, we were asked to step aside and there we stood, in front of all the other park guests, being grilled by "secondary security" all over again.

Eventually an assistant manger arrived and begn dividing our food into two piles.

Another selection.

We got to keep the sandwiches but the guard kept the chips and the granola bars.

At least they didn't make us take our shoes off this time.

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