Surrealist Security Theater

by on September 3, 2007 · 0 comments

I wonder if the TSA is starting to take the phrase “security theater” too literally. Xeni Jardin at Boing Boing reports on a downright surreal incident at the Los Angeles airport last week:

I walked from the arrival gate towards baggage claim, and when I was about halfway there, all of a sudden about a dozen or more TSA personnel and private security staff appeared, shouting STOP WHERE YOU ARE. FREEZE. DO NOT MOVE. Not just at me, but all of the travelers who happened to be wandering through the hallway at that moment.

Some of the TSA guards then backed up against walls in the hallway, and sort of barked at anyone who tried to move a few feet away from their “spot,” like towards chairs to sit down or whatever.

One TSA guard jogged ahead, back towards the arrival gates (United, this was Terminal 7). At first I assumed maybe it was some weird security drill? A few of us asked what was going on, and got terse answers, like, “Security review.” WTF? 5 minutes passed. 10, 15, 20. The two teen Japanese tourists about ten feet behind me looked utterly dazed — welcome to America, guys. I was really jetlagged and cranky, wanted to move a few feet and sit down, but the TSA lady nearest me kind of snapped at me to stop and stay frozen where I was when the order went out.

After 30 minutes, the TSA people said, okay, you may leave now. And everyone unfroze, and went and got their bags. No explanation.

That’s just bizarre. But it sounds very theatrical. I wonder if any of the travelers in that hallway walked away thinking “man, those TSA agents sure are working overtime to keep me safe from terrorists!”

Update: On a more serious note, I wonder what the constitutional implications of this sort of thing is. My understanding is that generally speaking, police officers can’t stop someone unless they have probable cause that a crime has been committed. Certainly, ordinary police officers don’t have the power to order everyone on a city street to freeze while they perform a “security review.” On the other hand, the courts seem to have taken the view that airports are a civil liberties twilight zone in which the ordinary constitutional principles don’t apply, so maybe the TSA can do whatever they please. Could a traveler caught in one of these pointless games of freeze tag sue the TSA for holding her without probable cause?

Update 2: Mystery solved! A Boing Boing commenter explains what’s going on:

I guess the pause is needed to change the tape on their surveillance system, and they don’t want any jumps in the picture — maybe their automated “threat detection” software shits bricks if there’s a gap in the tap.

As for the half hour pause — I guess the guy in charge of changing the tape was doing a Sen. Craig in some airport stall.

Previous post:

Next post: