Christopher Hitchens, my favorite Slate writer, reports on the horror, the humiliation, and the sheer futility of going through airport security in the post 9/11 era:

“The last time I was at Dulles Airport [serving Washington, D.C.], the line for security began at the entrance to the terminal and wound itself in several rope-line convolutions, like a clogged intestine, for about 40 minutes. I had allowed the usual two hours and was checking no luggage, but this and other banana-republic conditions almost made me miss my plane….

“There is one mercy at least: One no longer sees people smiling and saying, ‘Thank you’ as their wheelchairs and their children are put through pointless inspections. But the new form of servile abjection–standing in sullen lines and just putting up with it–is hardly an improvement. One sometimes wants to ask, ‘What’s my name?’ or, ‘To what database is this connected’ when someone has just asked for the third time for you to put down a bag and produce a driver’s license. But I think the fear of making some inscrutable ‘no-fly’ list may inhibit many people. There has never yet been a hijacker who boarded a plane without taking the trouble to purchase a ticket and carry an ID….

“People who have had their names confused with wanted or suspect people, and who have spent hours proving that they are who they say they are, are nonetheless compelled to go through the whole process every time, often with officials who have seen them before and cleared them before, because the system that never seems to catch anyone can never seem to let go of anyone, either.”

Tell me about it. The last time my husband and I flew, a couple of weeks ago for a visit to our relatives in California, he had his cigarette lighter confiscated (under brand-new rules he was unaware of from the Transportation Security Administration), and I was asked by a TSA minion whether I was “wearing anything” underneath my hoodie. Not a proper question to put to a lady, sir!

When I informed the fellow that I indeed had on a T-shirt, I was instructed to strip off the hoodie. I guess that beat having my brassiere groped, as was TSA procedure last year until some female politicians complained. And fortunately, the TSA hadn’t yet put into operation its latest and most cruel indignity: those Superman-style X-ray machines that will strip you naked as you pass through, all for the delectation and amusement of TSA employees.  

Hitchens’s column comes in the wake of a New York Times report on a leaked TSA document admitting that the agency has no real capacity to detect explosives and that its agents have not been trained either how to deal with a suspect armed with a live handgun or how to confiscate the weapon. Hitchens writes:

“The time elapsed between Sept. 11, 2001, and today’s writing (1,364 days) is only slightly less than the time between Pearl Harbor and the unconditional surrender of Japan (1,365 days). And airport security is still a silly farce that subjects the law-abiding to collective punishment while presenting almost no deterrent to a determined suicide-killer….

“What we are looking at, then, is a hugely costly and oppressive system that is designed to maintain the illusion of safety and the delusion that the state is protecting its citizens. The main beneficiaries seem to be the pilferers employed by this vast bureaucracy–we have had several recent reports about the steep increase in items stolen from luggage. And that is petty theft that takes place off-stage. What amazes me is the willingness of Americans to submit to confiscation at the point of search. Every day, people are relieved of private property in broad daylight, with the sole net result that they wouldn’t have even a nail file with which to protect themselves if (or rather when) the next hijacking occurs.”

My husband can second that bit about the seized property. And I would add this: There is one highly effective way to protect American air passengers and crews from terrorists who seek to wreak 9/11-style havoc on planes. It’s called profiling. But we’re not allowed to do that, or the American Civil Liberties Union would scream.

So instead, millions of ordinary, law-abiding citizens–grannies, toddlers, honeymooning couples, businessmen and businesswomen–daily suffer in barefoot and beltless silence punitive ignominies suitable for convicted felons serving prison time. They’re afraid not to. Afraid not of the terrorists who might slip onto airplanes were the procedures not followed, but of the bureaucrats who might bar these hapless passengers from the air if they raise the smallest complaint.