Is Airport Security Really Secure?

Dear Boston Logan TSA,

It was airport drudgery like any other day: carryon luggage stuffed with a week's worth of clothing, a backpack brimming with notebooks and magazines, an overpriced taxi to the airport, and the faint whiff of McDonald's fries from my terminal's food court. 

I arrive at airport security. The line is long, but I don't mind - a decade of travel writing has instilled a certain amount of patience in me. I arrive at the front of the line and start loading my personal effects onto the conveyor belt for screening: shoes off, belt off, wallet out, and computer separate from my small backpack. I pass through one of those fancy new swooshing human scanners and emerge on the other side to collect my belongings: shoes, belt, wallet and... wait, where's my computer? 

There's a sinking feeling deep in the pit of my stomach: my computer is gone.

I dash over to a guard on duty and explain that my computer has vanished. "It was on the conveyor belt after the previous person's white guitar case and bright floral bag". It was quite fortuitous that the contents screened right before mine were so memorable. But alas, my concerns are met with a quizzical "are you sure you lost your computer?"

Scores of travelers pass by before the guard signals to his supervisor that something's gone awry. 

Regretful thoughts fill my head for not having backed up the contents of my MacBook, but mostly I'm consumed by two things: what would possess someone to steal my computer directly from airport security, and how could TSA let such a thing happen right under their nose? 

Ten minutes go by and nothing. No one's returned to the security station having realized that they accidentally took my computer off the conveyor belt instead of theirs. That's when it really hits me: I'm never going to see my computer again. Ten years traveling, 80+ countries visited, 40+ Lonely Planet guidebooks written, and this is how all of my photos and articles disappear: at the hands of Boston Logan TSA. 

Twenty minute elapse. Thirty. Forty.

Passengers are boarding their international flights, and pretty soon my computer will be on the other side of globe. I politely panic to the TSA guards about why it is taking them over half an hour to review mere seconds of security footage to figure out who grabbed my laptop. 

Fifty minutes. One hour.

While patiently waiting for computer intel, I eavesdrop on the lingering conversation amongst TSA agents. Someone's taken too long in the bathroom, someone showed up two minutes late for their shift. Someone's decided to leave early out of spite. No one is focused on their job. 

Two security officials approach to let me know that the video footage is "inconclusive", even after providing them with the detailed information about the guitar case and the floral bag.

A full 90 minutes pass and I plead with the TSA officers to examine the stack of items that are currently unaccounted for, which seems to include a small silver computer. It bears little resemblance to mine save the Apple logo, but maybe this holds the key to its disappearance. I instruct them to turn the computer on and track down the passenger whose username appears on the home screen. Finally a sympathetic guard springs into action and finds that the username matches a passenger's name on the manifest of a flight that is just about to depart. 

With mere minutes to spare (and with boarding requests for my own flight echoing over the loudspeaker) armed guards drag the man with the username in question off of his flight. They bring him to the security area and pull my laptop out of his bag.

How he mistook my computer for his I'll never know, but the truly baffling aspect of the situation was how it took a handful of security professionals over an hour and a half to track down my stolen property with an arsenal of advanced surveillance equipment.  

Of course this is only one experience - a drop in the ocean of myriad travel tales - but it raises a lot of questions, namely: is airport security really doing its job when it can't even protect the basic security of its passers-through?  

Airport security should instill a sense of calm and trust in the passengers walking through; that their in-flight experience will indeed be a safe one. And in light of the three airplane calamities that have been splashed across the news this week alone, we need - now more than ever - our flying fears assuaged. 

So step up your game Boston Logan TSA; there's no room for this kind of error. 


Scientists find a horrible new way cocaine can damage your brain

Swiss researchers identify new dangers of modern cocaine.

Getty Images
Mind & Brain
  • Cocaine cut with anti-worming adulterant levamisole may cause brain damage.
  • Levamisole can thin out the prefrontal cortex and affect cognitive skills.
  • Government health programs should encourage testing of cocaine for purity.
Keep reading Show less

How to vaccinate the world’s most vulnerable? Build global partnerships.

Pfizer's partnerships strengthen their ability to deliver vaccines in developing countries.

Susan Silbermann, Global President of Pfizer Vaccines, looks on as a health care worker administers a vaccine in Rwanda. Photo: Courtesy of Pfizer.
  • Community healthcare workers face many challenges in their work, including often traveling far distances to see their clients
  • Pfizer is helping to drive the UN's sustainable development goals through partnerships.
  • Pfizer partnered with AMP and the World Health Organization to develop a training program for healthcare workers.
Keep reading Show less
Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.