Skip the B.S.
By Skip Eisiminger
“The philosophy of Homeland Security seems to be, ‘If we cannot tie a good square knot, we’ll tie a lot of grannies.’ If New York were Baghdad or Damascus and visitors were buying life insurance by the hour as they once did in Beirut, I’d say tie those grannies until a column of cats comes goose-stepping down Peachtree Street. As a nation, we seem to be acting like some friends of ours who still have locks on their toilet lids long after their dog died and the kids moved out. Ballast is fine for the ship of state, but a bit of sail is also necessary.” Skip Eisiminger
“In pleasant ease and security,/How suddenly the soul of man begins to die.”—Robinson Jeffers
“We’re beginning to resemble a mob of meercats.”—The Wordspinner
CLEMSON South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—7/22/2013—When I joined the advisory board of the local recreation center, the director took the new members on a guided tour of the facility. He was especially proud of his new security-camera system, which effectively gave the operator 17 eyes on a four-acre site.
The director said there had been “an incident” a few days earlier, and he had saved the tape lest anyone think the system’s purchase was exorbitant. The edited black-and-white film showed an adolescent male working rhythmically on a weight machine in an almost-empty room. As he seated himself at a new machine, he removed his iPod because it appeared to interfere with the exercise but, when he finished, he left his device on the floor.
A few minutes later, the lifter left, and a thief, who’d been eyeing it from his treadmill, moved in. The owner then was seen re-entering the weight room and searching the premises. Following a fruitless search, he went to the director who rewound the tape, zoomed in on the thief as he was leaving the facility, and captured his license-plate number. A quick check of the files and the day’s sign-in sheet revealed the thief’s identity—an adolescent male the same age as the victim. A phone call to the thief was answered by his father. Five minutes later, the iPod was back in the hands of the grateful owner, who pressed no charges.
The necessity of securing public facilities has always been a given, but it hasn’t always been as easy as hidden cameras make it today. Nor was it always a matter of over-riding concern.
Invited to the White House in 1842, Charles Dickens knocked on President Tyler’s front door shortly after his arrival in the nation’s capital. When no one answered, he dropped his bags and let himself in.
At the end of Dickens’ century, security often consisted of posting signs in the better neighborhoods reading, “Gentle stranger, please turn back.”
As late as the 1930s, motorists on Pennsylvania Avenue were permitted to use the White House portico to protect themselves from the rain while they raised their convertible tops.
And, in 1956, a troubled White House visitor,who found herself detached from her tour group, wandered undetected for four hours while setting small fires in the Eisenhowers’ home. No damage was done, and she was taken to the kitchen where she was served a cup of tea.
Which is not to say that the White House hasn’t needed security: in 1814, the British burned the President’s home in retaliation for our burning of Canada’s Parliament buildings in 1813. After the home was rebuilt, President Monroe ordered snipers stationed on the roof. It’s a wonder that Charles Dickens wasn’t shot, for the marksmen continue to be stationed there along with ground-to-air missiles. Security also consists of a bomb-proof basement, electric sensors along the ten-foot-tall steel fence, bomb-sniffing dogs, and $1.6 million worth of bomb-proof glass in the window frames.
Anyone with the courage to run for our nation’s highest office deserves all the protection the country can provide, including the phalanx of human shields called the Secret Service. But when George Bush, Jr. used to go for a bike ride at Camp David, did he really need 14 cars to accompany him?
Perhaps so, but do 7.6 million neutral Swiss need nine million places in bomb shelters? Won’t that mountain tourist trade dry up come WW III? Moreover, Switzerland hasn’t fought a real war in 500 years.
Furthermore, does Donald Trump really need four private guards with Uzis at the ready when he dines with friends? And do US generals really need Blackwater private security when they have thousands of Marines?
In May of 2011, Harper’s reported that the Transportation Security Administration employed nearly 3,000 “behavior-detection officers” at the nation’s ports and airports. Since their hiring after 9-11, over one quarter of a million people have been “flagged” as suspicious but, on further investigation, these “flags” have yielded only 2,000 arrests.
At some point, don’t we have to say the sky isn’t falling and go about our business with or without an umbrella?
That government security is a porous reality was proven in 2009 when Government Accountability agents carried bomb components through ten security checkpoints in federal buildings across the country. Not one bomb was detected. I’m really not surprised because my wife presented her driver’s license to four security personnel on a flight to Arizona in May of 2011. Not one noticed that her license had expired in January of the same year. A few days after we returned home, a state trooper stopped her in a routine license-DUI check, and he missed the expiration as well.
Perhaps to compensate for stories such as these, shamed security personnel raise the ante and double down when there is the slightest suspicion.
In November of 2002, a friend of ours bought four one-way tickets from Atlanta to Munich, one for herself and each of her small children. She explained that she was joining her husband, who had found employment with BMW, in Germany. Trouble was the wife had a Hungarian passport. Even after X-raying and patting down the four potential bombers and opening their luggage, they made her buy four return-trip tickets before allowing the family to board the plane. One airline clerk confided that she could redeem her return tickets in a week, and she did, but in what world these days is a terrorist not going to buy a round-trip ticket? And if she were carrying a bomb, would the added expense have deterred her?
The illusion of security in a random universe can be seductive, but as cartoonists over the last couple of decades have pointed out, it can also be comic. In one sketch by the New Yorker’s Jason Patterson, a salesman of surplus tanks confides to a prospective buyer, “It’s a little cramped, but you can’t beat it for security.” In another panel, Patterson’s colleague Charlie Barsotti eavesdrops on a rich man telling a neighbor, “Of course we’re gated, but are we gated enough?” Finally, Leo Cullum imagines an airport security agent, whose authority has gone to his head, telling a traveler that her caged cat will need to be declawed.
As a nation, we’ve become like the cop who arrested a mother for child neglect after she left her ten-year-old in the car for two minutes. The mother had ducked back into her home to fetch her belted-in daughter a life jacket. And that’s no joke, but it should have been.
The philosophy of Homeland Security seems to be, “If we cannot tie a good square knot, we’ll tie a lot of grannies.” If New York were Baghdad or Damascus and visitors were buying life insurance by the hour as they once did in Beirut, I’d say tie those grannies until a column of cats comes goose-stepping down Peachtree Street. As a nation, we seem to be acting like some friends of ours who still have locks on their toilet lids long after their dog died and the kids moved out. Ballast is fine for the ship of state, but a bit of sail is also necessary.