Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Just Doin’ Muh Job

In post-9/11 America, the Bush administration has created and nurtured a climate of fear, a landscape where you don’t have to be all that paranoid to see terrorists in every shadow.

One of the saddest casualties of such a state is the loss of subjectivity, the abdication of common sense that results from an unyielding loyalty to regulations. I saw this in action Saturday afternoon at Kansas City International Airport, Terminal A, Gate 25, when an elderly man was pulled out of the security line and given the electronic-wand treatment, over and over and over.

He was an unassuming gentleman with a doughy face, a striped polo shirt, and a New York cap. They made him lift his arms while they ran the wand all around his body, and he complied willingly, cooperatively. I’ve been pulled out of line before and found it best to go along with a smile, to let the underpaid TSA guys do their thing without hassle, and that’s what this fellow was doing.

KCI is set up so the people who accompany you to the airport can stay in visual contact even after you go through security, and there outside the gate that day were a man and a woman—the elderly man’s son and possibly his daughter or daughter-in-law—watching to make sure the old man made it to his plane. The son was about my age, mid-40s or so, and after a few minutes of watching his father being inspected, he approached the emergency exit and asked the female TSA agent there what the holdup was. I didn’t hear her response, but the son spoke again in a more agitated fashion: “He’s an 80-year-old man, he’s not well, and you’re making him stand with this arms up for ten minutes!”

The woman signaled for assistance. Two white-shirted TSA guys came to the exit and asked what the problem was. Again the son appealed to their sensitivity, explaining that his father was old and not well, and that standing in that position wasn’t helping his health any. His companion asked “Would you treat your own father like that?”

The answer came straight of the manual: “We have to screen him. We have to follow regulations.”

The son said he wasn’t suggesting that no one screen passengers, and again asked that they be more sensitive to his father’s condition.

And they wouldn’t do it. Two more TSA agents poked their heads through the emergency-exit doorway. Two more seemed to be hovering outside the gate in case they needed to use force on this man pleading for common sense—essentially asking someone to let his father put his arms down.

Any one of them could have relayed that message to the guy with the wand. Any one of them could have said “Hey, Charlie—this guy’s 80 and his son says he’s not well. Let him rest for a minute.”

But they’d sworn allegiance to the regulations. They had to go by the book. As long as they could rely on the book, they wouldn’t have to think. The son raised his voice a time or two, he called the whole procedure ridiculous, and from what I could tell he wanted desperately to rush through the gate and rescue his dad—but he was remarkably restrained and stayed civil through his indignation, even while the screeners continued to take their sweet time clearing the old man for travel.

I shared a sympathetic look with the man and woman before I left. There wasn’t much else I could do.

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