Thursday, September 28, 2006

Shampoo Explosions

A couple weeks ago, I was convinced the lodging junta had gotten to the Transportation Security Administration. After all, who would see the biggest benefit from the recent ban on liquids in airplane cabins? Hotels, obviously: the knapsack majority would no longer be able to steal those little tiny shampoos and lotions they leave in your bathroom, or on maid carts in the hall, or in utility closets behind easy-to-jimmy locks. The hotel lobby and its backers would see shrinkage decline and profits increase. And I’d have to start buying full-price VO5 from Target to stock my home shower.

Now it seems the little-tiny-shampoo-bottle manufacturers were behind it all along. Since TSA slackened its restrictions this week, Americans are able to take three-ounce containers of our favorite gels and liquids in our carry-ons, so long as we consolidate our stash in a clear, one-quart zipper baggie segregated from our ordinary handbags. Now, if we want to exfoliate or condition while on the road, we either have to steal from the hotel, forcing Holiday Inn to buy more little tiny containers, or go to Target to buy the minibottles ourselves. Diabolical single-serving-health-and-beauty-distribution geniuses. Are we supposed to believe it is a coincidence that all the suspects arrested in the transatlantic terror plot come from countries where the tiny-bottle trade is the leading employer (not an actual fact)?

The bigger advance for Joe Zip-pack is TSA’s blessing to bring aboard liquids and gels purchased between the checkpoint and the gate. Rather than venture dry into the cramped seats of U.S. airlines, we are permitted the small dignity of first arming ourselves with airport-expensive versions of lattes already overpriced in the normal world and brand-name water in clear plastic bottles, which they say is the only sensible form of water these days.

Former Homeland Security Inspector General and current mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent Ervin thinks this is a terrible idea. The opinion he imports in USA Today is essentially the same from his appearance on CNN the day TSA loosened its regulations: “if inherently innocuous items can be mixed to make a bomb, then permitting people to buy such items past the screening checkpoint at the airport and bring them onto airplanes is just as potentially dangerous as allowing people to carry on prefabricated bombs” (link). The problem is in his premise. No one ever accused the terrorists of attempting to make airplane-destroying bombs out of “inherently innocuous items”; they were going to make them out of completely nocuous items disguised as innocuous. You can’t blow up an airplane with bottled water itself, but you could blow it up with an ammonium-nitrate solution in bottled-water containers. (I wouldn’t advise trying it at home or on a plane, because you would hurt yourself and a lot of other people.) The idea is that prior screening can guarantee that sports drinks sold at postcheckpoint newsstands don’t have gel explosives concealed beneath false bottoms. That Mr. Ervin believes TSA is afraid of anyone mixing genuine Aquafina with genuine Head and Shoulders mid-flight and blowing a jetliner out of the sky makes me wonder how little common sense you have to possess to become a high-ranking DHS official. Fourteen-year-olds are probably disqualified.

Mr. Ervin is just as critical of the bottle-manufacturer-backed move to allow small quantities of toiletries through security. “I am skeptical that TSA has definitively determined that small quantities of liquids and gels pose no threat,” he writes. “Given its track record, it is far likelier that TSA has simply determined that small quantities pose minimal threats.” So TSA, damn them all, determined that the small risk that terrorists could use chemicals in three-ounce shampoo bottles to bring down a commercial flight is outweighed by the needs of passengers for convenience and comfort. Isn’t this what they’re supposed to do?

On the one hand, we could adopt an abstinence-only security policy and not allow plane travel at all, and on the other we could allow anyone and anything on all flights. The smart course is a balance. Once in a while planes are going to crash and people are going to die, and it is right and good that we should do what we can to make the onces few and the whiles long, but such is ultimately a real cost we calculate into the air-travel equation. Reasonable, educated people can and will bicker over where in the demilitarized zone between freedom and security to draw the line, and TSA more than likely has still not found the optimal place. But it makes sense to have restrictions on truly threatening items and allow the freedom to carry nonthreatening ones, and it makes sense that in times of emergency immediately surrounding a disaster or credible threat more items would fall in the former category.

I flew cross-country twice in the past week, once before the regulatory change and once after. Both times I defied TSA by carrying gel-based deodorant in my carry-on. There is danger in making laws overly stringent: suddenly disobedience seems like a less absurd option. There’s a slight chance that antipersperant-armed people could create a crisis on a plane, but there’s a much larger chance that, had I traveled without deodorant, my rowmates’ return flight would have been less than pleasant.

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