Against all odds, I finally believe it: Iraq is now safer than the United States. And no, it’s not post-election euphoria clouding my mind. No, after six years of watching an endless news stream of insurgent and poorly directed violence result in seemingly endless American casualties – I finally get a news item so purely devoid of spin that I’ve no choice to believe it and draw the conclusion above. In case you missed it, at a joint news conference in Iraq, where President Bush (alongside Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki) was talking about the “success” of the “War Against Terror” in Iraq, a man stood up, and threw not one, but both of his shoes, in succession at the U.S. President. To his credit, the President deftly avoided both, and remained at his podium, barely missing stride as he continued on with his planned rhetoric (or at least to the extent that the president’s stumbling repartee can be considered an artful flow of any sort) The man, later identified as Iraqi reporter Muntadhar al-Zeidi, was loosely surrounded by what looked to be other press conference attendees and security, and generated no more excitement than one might expect from a noisy coughing fit. The banality of it was overwhelming, and made me believe that we are either (a) winning the war in Iraq, or (b) losing the war at home.
But before you go unfurling the since-unused “Mission Accomplished” banner, let me explain.
Lately, work has provided me the “opportunity” to travel quite a bit (and by “opportunity” I, of course, mean the chance to spend two days a week flying coach across country and hoping that I’ll get boarded onto the plane early enough to not have my carry-on sized bag checked in the American Airlines black luggage hole due to a lack of remaining overhead storage space). And, in the interests of traveling light (and speed through the airport), I take only a carry-on sized suitcase and my briefcase. And if you have traveled in the past six years, you know where I’m headed next. In the wake of the tragedies of September 11, 2001, airport security got understandably more strict. When previously one could pass through the metal detector with anything short of a half-pound nugget of iron ore without setting off the alarm, now the metal tip on my ball point pen (if not removed from my person) sets off a security situation so intense that I began to have a very real concern for the cleanliness condition of my underpants.
Subsequent years (and associated misadvised criminal ventures in the sky) have brought even more onerous restrictions:
Gels and Liquids. I never really new how much of a sissy I had become until this rule was put into place. The “trial size” section of the drug store became the “travel size” section of the drug store overnight, and there was finally a legitimate reason to pocket all the complimentary toiletries that one was given at their hotel. I came to the shocking and disappointing revelation that I have been roped into chronic dependency on no less than ten or twelve separate gels and/or liquids for my own grooming. I can almost hear my father’s disappointment from here. Here was a man who needed only three substances in his bathroom: Ivory soap, Barbasol shaving cream, and Head and Shoulders Shampoo (the last of which I think he was deeply ashamed of). And here I am with five separate such substances just for my hair. Oh, the shame of it. But apparently the federal government has decided that with one quart’s worth of three ounce containers of things, there is no possible way that one can reliably make an explosive device.
Have these people never watched MacGyver? Or for that matter, ever seen a James Bond movie? Honestly, I’m quite certain that the only thing this restriction is preventing is the satisfactory grooming of business travelers. But hey, if you’d like to feel safe, and as if no decently motivated and well-funded terrorist group could come up with a plan circumventing this, you go right ahead. All I know is that if I ever find out that either Richard Dean Anderson or Daniel Craig has become a fundamentalist Muslim, you won’t find me anywhere near an airplane they’re flying on (unless they’re going to also prevent gum wrappers, wristwatches and ink pens on flights).
Shoes. So you know how the story goes from here: one very suspect looking “criminal mastermind” tries to light his shoe on fire (with a kitchen match) on a flight – and is later discovered to be wearing self-designed Nike Exploders. As a result, the shoes of all travelers must be removed and x-ray-ed. Wait a minute, after this and nearly twenty years of non-smoking flights, couldn’t we just outlaw matches?
No, the smart way to do this is to have everyone remove their shoes. Everyone. Eighty year old grandmother dawdling along in her orthopedics? Yup, they go on the belt. Toddler with 3 inch long Crocs? On the belt, thank you. Really? Wow. So the woman and child who couldn’t light a candle on a birthday cake if their life depended on it, need to be screened to be sure they won’t light their shoes off once on-board the plane? What’s more, have you ever tried to reach your shoes from a coach seat? You’d have to be a reasonably well-accomplished contortionist to even comfortably attempt such a feat, let alone be assured any measure of success.
So let’s just say you’re the criminal mastermind of a terrorist organization – and let’s assume further than you’re at least a few IQ points ahead of the aforementioned Richard Reid (which, just so we’re clear, doesn’t necessarily put you in extraordinary company). Knowing that they’re screening grandma’s (along with everyone else’s shoes) wouldn’t you maybe, just maybe, place your match-lit explosives in another innocuous piece of clothing?
I don’t know about you, but I rest a little easier on each plane that I fly on knowing that federal passenger screening procedures have protected me from the world’s dumbest terrorists.
Which brings me to my point: Can you imagine what sort of hullabaloo would occur if someone tried to throw a shoe at a major US airport? First the thrower would be apprehended like Osama Bin Laden, himself, drawing every TSA grunt within earshot, the mildly armed airport security staff, and every air marshall who could get himself there as fast as his “inconspicuous” costume would allow. Next, they’d lock down the terminal like it was the end of days, and bring airport operations to a halt. Finally, there would be non-stop news coverage for at least seventy-two hours afterwards, when shoe experts, throwing experts and shoe-based explosives experts would opine as to just what had happened, with no evidence or information save what the few eyewitnesses could provide. And all this of course, where shoe was thrown at no one in particular.
A similar, but much more internationally intense version of the previous occurred in Iraq and ended up as little more than an oddity, and most post-event commentary was focused on the president’s “quick reaction time” (as if the obstacle avoidance mechanism which was evolutionarily developed in all humans [monkeys that don’t get out of the way of flying things often don’t survive long enough to reproduce] is somehow exceptional when identified in the President) I mean, for all practical purposes, this guy got off easier than the “don’t taze me bro” kid did. Seriously, I’ve seen a more dramatic reaction at an Apple store when the iPhone inventory got low. I take it from this muted response that no one’s taking off their shoes at the Iraqi airports to get screened these days.
By now, this news oddity – the video of which has made it around the world and been viewed and re-viewed millions of times – has become an international incident. There is an offer of $10M to buy just one of the dress shoes turned projectile, and the New York Times is reporting that a daughter of the Libyan leader Muammar el-Qaddafi has awarded the thrower a medal of courage. But this is all after the fact – the result of the same hype machine which turns nominal injuries to NFL quarterbacks into week-long national news stories. The initial reaction was far more telling. You can be certain that press conferences in Iraq will not suddenly require all attendees to go through a rigorous screening process (including the removal of shoes and the reduction of one’s grooming supplies into a one quart Ziploc bag).
For all the things that burgeoning government in Iraq may not know, it appears that they know two things which we here in the homeland have long since forgotten:
1. You cannot eliminate the existence or impact of the crazy people amongst us by treating everyone as if they might be crazy. All you will accomplish by this is making the sane people angry and make the crazy ones harder to find. For example, now everyone acts unnaturally agitated when going through airport security.
2. A permanent “heightened threat level” is no longer heightened. Am I the only one who knows “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” story? An increased awareness level can be quite powerful when judiciously implemented, but the temptation to keep it around constantly must be resisted. No matter what you call the “threat level” when everything seems peaceful, that’s the new “peace” level. Or to put it in terms that the government thinks makes it easier for us to digest: Orange is the new Green.
These lessons aside, you know that something’s terribly wrong when it feels safer at a press conference in Iraq than it does at the local airport. Of course, maybe that means we’ve finally achieved a level of peace over there, or maybe all along, the Iraqis have never been particularly prone to overreaction. Or maybe we’ve lost our collective minds with regard to airport safety to the point where the security procedures in an active war zone, seem sane by comparison. Either way, unless we start gaining a little perspective and sanity soon, I’m really not looking forward to going through airport security the day after the “Pants Bomber” strikes.