Any American who has traveled by commercial airline in the last few years knows that, far from the exotic and uplifting experience of yore, our air transportation system more closely resembles the seventh circle of Dante's Inferno.
From "customer service" agents who take positive glee in announcing yet another "weather cancellation" as a happy sun beams down brightly outside; to aging aircraft that, while technically safe, all but shed nonessential parts in midair; and not forgetting the teeming masses in the airports more reminiscent of the last train out of Shanghai than the 21st century we saw in the Jetsons, traveling on any of the major American airlines has become something to be avoided at almost any cost.
At least in the face of all these difficulties, passengers have some minimal action they can take. They can change to another airline, in hopes they'll be better. They can file a complaint, and maybe win a consolation prize of free tickets or even a refund. In extremis, there's always the option of a lawsuit, as is becoming the solution of choice to those hapless souls imprisoned in overheated metal tubes for hours on end, with no word of when or food or water or working restrooms (to say nothing of an actual departure). And in theory, there's even the possibility that an airline may be abandoned by infuriated customers and cease operations.
The worst aspect of air travel offers none of even these meager consolations. I refer to the aptly misnamed "Transportation Security Administration," or TSA, justly infamous for providing little of the first, little of the second, and none whatsoever of the last.
Not a day goes by without another news report of more failures in the system, from metal detectors that the operators forgot to turn on, to phony IDs, to airport construction work done by illegal immigrants who come from God knows where. Meanwhile, law-abiding citizens queue in lines that would cause hardened Soviet-era Moscow residents to go home in despair, performing gyrations that would be beneath the dignity of circus animals, for the purpose of being relieved of such notable deadly weapons as nail files and bottled water.
If these regulations and rules could truly make us safe, then at least there would be an argument for them. But they don't. They are a reaction to specific attacks which, had they been in place before those attacks, would have made no difference whatsoever.
We must now pad through the line in our stocking feet, submitting our shoes to the electronic scanner, because of Richard Reid the "shoe bomber." On a flight from Paris, he attempted to destroy the plane by manually lighting a fuse in his shoe with a match, connected to a plastic-explosive bomb.
(A side note here: Plastic explosives, as their name implies, are not metal - so the X-ray machine will see nothing more than the ordinary cloth and plastic you expect in a shoe.)
Anyway, Mr. Reid was noted in the Paris airport as a bit of a fruitcake, was intensively interrogated and missed his original flight, only to be allowed his liberty and a ticket on the next flight, complete with explosive footgear. Thanks for the help, Inspector Clouseau!
Worse, we have the liquid-explosive plot, where an al-Qaeda team planned to blow up as many as ten aircraft in flight over the Atlantic by smuggling liquid explosives onboard the planes. So now we can no longer bring beverages, perfume, cosmetics... the list is endless.
However, in a bow to reality, mothers are allowed to bring infant formula to feed their babies in flight. The TSA appears not to have realized that the original terrorists intended to smuggle the explosives aboard disguised as... infant formula.
Now comes news which, we pray, may be the last straw. According to Reuters, 37-year-old Mandi Hamlin attempted to board a flight in Lubbock, TX. On passing through security, she set off the metal detectors, triggering the customary wanding.
The wand identified the presence of metal in the area of her chest. Ms. Hamlin confessed to the TSA agent that she was armed with nipple rings.
It gets better. Ms. Hamlin offered to privately show the bangles to a female TSA agent, so as to demonstrate her harmlessness. But no! A growing number of male agents demanded that they be removed entirely.
Apparently this proved to be a more complicated operation than one might imagine, but not to worry - the well-equipped TSA gladly produced, for Ms. Hamlin's use, a pair of pliers.
About the only thing that comes to mind at this point is those old Bugs Bunny cartoons where Elmer Fudd shoots him (and misses), and Bugs puts on a show of dying. Oooh! Oww! Aaaah! Eeeh! Except, of course, this would be real, and no fakery. The imagination quails; the heart sinks; the stomach turns.
You might wonder what on Earth possessed Ms. Hamlin to wear metallic jewelry into the airline system. But that is completely irrelevant.
Was Ms. Hamlin a threat to anybody? Was she committing a crime? Was there any possible risk involved to anyone at all? As we've pointed out before, liberty and freedom must include the liberty to do things which are odd, in poor taste, or just plain stupid, as long as they don't hurt anybody else. Is it now the prerogative of government to determine what private ornamentation is appropriate for an adult to freely choose to wear?
The fact of the matter is, it is not possible for us to be safe. It simply can't be done. Murders take place every day in supermax prisons. Do we all want to live like that as a matter of course, and still not be safe?
The right person can cause mayhem with nothing more than their own body - go rent a Jackie Chan movie or watch Mike Tyson. And beyond the strong, any number of perfectly ordinary objects are deadly weapons, like pens, pencils, even a drinking straw. When does it stop?
There will never again be a hijacked passenger aircraft in the United States. We saw this illustrated on 9-11 itself.
The passengers and crew of the first three planes assumed that the terrorists would land the aircraft somewhere, make their demands, and negotiate, as had been the result of virtually every other airplane hijacking in a half-century. There might be a gunfight and a few casualties; there might be a few innocent victims murdered by the terrorists; but most everyone would come out OK. How were they to know that murder and suicide were the only plan at work?
But the passengers on the fourth plane, running behind schedule, found out about the fate of the first three. They realized that they were all dead men anyway, and that they might as well fight back.
There was nothing to lose, and everything to gain. They gave their lives to stop the attack, and in doing so saved the lives of hundreds or thousands whom the terrorists hoped also to incinerate.
Exactly the same thing will happen if there's another attempted hijacking. We've seen this already with people that "went nuts" on a plane, and were pig-piled by their fellow passengers. Even Richard Reid, the loopy shoe bomber, was prevented not by any police officers, but by an ordinary stewardess and ordinary passengers.
The worst that can ever happen on a plane any more would be for it to get blown up. That would kill the passengers, and maybe a few people on the ground underneath, but there is no possible way to make sure it never happens.
The plane is full of explosive fuel! Baggage and cargo go on the plane anyway! As we've noted, uncleared individuals penetrate airport tarmacs all the time! And if all else fails, there are thousands of surface-to-air missiles floating around the black markets of the world. What good does terminal security do, when there are literally hundreds of other ways for our enemies to accomplish the same evil goals?
By attempting to reach an impossible perfection of safety, we not only give up all hope of liberty and every shred of dignity, we make ourselves look like fools in the process.
Through this latest tomfoolery, TSA has earned yet another acronym of derision to put next to "Thousands Standing Around" - "Tits Safe Again." Good grief. Is this America? Osama must be laughing hysterically in his cave.
We'd all be safer, richer, and better off, if the buffoons of the TSA and Department of Homeland received their pink slips, the scanners and X-ray machines were scrapped, and in their place was put a large poster:
"You are Americans. Keep your eyes open! Protect yourself." The Founders would applaud.