Holiday travel is a challenge even in the best of times, but when the obstacles that accompany Orange Alerts are placed alongside the more customary rigors of crossing great distances and breaking bread with relatives whose company is best enjoyed from at least two time zones away, well, the typical traveler is left with a condition remedied only by a good book, soft music, and strong drink. Most of you are back home now, perhaps even thankful to be back at work, and some of you are vowing never to go near an airport for the rest of your lives.
And who can blame you? I had the opportunity to view the state of affairs at Los Angeles International Airport this holiday season, not only as a beleaguered traveler being scanned, poked, and prodded like everyone else, but also as a member of the security apparatus that sprang into action at LAX with the raising of the terrorist-threat level. I was one of the beleaguerers, if you will, and my apologies go out to all who were inconvenienced.
It’s difficult to prove why something didn’t happen, of course, so for now we are left to speculate on what may have prevented the terrorist attack we were led to believe was in the works. When the history of this war is written, perhaps we’ll learn that some sinister plan of destruction was indeed foiled at the very last moment by a sharp-eyed security screener, that in the long run the added annoyances placed in the paths of ordinary travelers were a small price to pay for safety.
But don’t count on it.
At LAX, the plan seemed designed to present a facade of security to the traveling public while actually doing little to deter any terrorist with even a modest amount of initiative. Passenger cars were barred from curbside drop-offs and pick-ups in front of the terminals, forcing drivers into the already overcrowded parking lots and structures inside the airport. But exempted from this were shuttle buses, limousines, and taxicabs, all of which were allowed to stop directly in front of the terminals without undergoing so much as a cursory inspection. I’ve spent enough time in taxis to know that if I were going to begin a search for al Qaeda sympathizers any given city, I’d start with the cab drivers.
And while the taxis were breezing in and out of the airport, ordinary folks in their own cars were stuck in long lines on the surrounding streets, waiting to pass through checkpoints manned by officers from the LAPD and the airport police. The instructions at one of these checkpoints just before Christmas were to stop and check every tenth car regardless of the occupants’ appearance. The officers dutifully complied, using mirrors to check for hidden bombs and rifling the belongings of people no sane person would ever suspect of being a terrorist.
At one point, an LAPD captain happened along and watched the checkpoint operation in progress. Cops everywhere know there is no situation so hopelessly fouled up that it cannot be made more so by the helpful intervention of the typical police captain. You should be searching more cars, the captain opined, and he gave the order that as soon as one car was searched and released another one should be stopped. The predictable result was a traffic jam that stretched back and onto the nearby freeway, prompting an inquiry from the California Highway Patrol. The sergeant running the checkpoint was summoned to the station and asked what on earth he thought he was doing. Captain’s orders, the sergeant explained, only to be told that the captain in question was an idiot and that searching every tenth car would be quite sufficient, thank you very much.
Officers were of course discouraged from stopping cars based on any outward sign that they might contain Arabs or Muslims. That would be racial profiling, after all, and we sure can’t have any of that! A Buick brimming with Baathists or Mercedes full of Mohammedan mullahs would have sailed right through if it didn’t happen to be the tenth car, and probably even if it did. The show of force was intended to inspire confidence, but I don’t see how the sight of old ladies and young children being searched made anyone feel safer, especially when young men who happened to be a shade on the swarthy side seemed to be avoiding the same level of scrutiny.
But we all came through okay, didn’t we? And now we can share the tales of our ordeals with one another as we stand in line to exchange the unwanted gifts we hauled all the way home from Scranton. And even more important, next year we’ll have an excuse for staying home. Like Perry Como said, for the holidays you can’t beat home sweet home.
–Jack Dunphy is an officer in the Los Angeles Police Department. “Jack Dunphy” is the author’s nom de cyber. The opinions expressed are his own and almost certainly do not reflect those of the LAPD management.