There’s probably no context in which rubber gloves are anything less than alarming. These hands, they seem to announce, are tasked with some dirty business. These fingers, say the brightly colored latex digits, are crossing into unsavory terrain. You don’t know where those hands have been, and you don’t want to know where they’re going, but wherever it is, they’re going to need protection.
Which is why, I think, the most unsettling part of passing through airport security — more disquieting than the quasi-police TSA uniforms, which always seem at least two sizes too snug; more heart-racing than the body-imaging equipment, which looks exactly like what a brain-tumor-inducing machine would look like if you tried to build one — is the sight of a slightly bored TSA agent, bursting out of her uniform like a baked potato out of the foil, waiting on the other side of the machines with a pair of rubber gloves and a dead-eyed expression.
Because whatever it is she’s wearing those gloves for, it ain’t to do the dishes.
Elemental fairness requires me to announce the following: In two recent trips through airport security—once in Miami, once in Baltimore — not only did I zip effortlessly along — no gloves required — but the only unpleasantness I experienced was the string of curses that was unleashed on a female passenger in line who, it seems, waited until she was at the conveyor belt before remembering to remove her laptop and iPad, place them both in a grey plastic bin by themselves, remove her shoes and belt, jacket and heavy jewelry, toss out her water bottle, and put her little shampoos into a zip-lock bag.
The curses, I must confess, came from me. Airport security does that. Suddenly, every passenger is a short-tempered Soviet housewife in line for a few potatoes. And every TSA agent is a barking gym teacher: loathed and pitied by the students, but ultimately obeyed. Gym teachers, like TSA officers, have the power to humiliate. And like the nerdy kid who’s bad at sports, we all try to get through the line without calling attention to ourselves. How do you know who’s in charge? It’s always, always, the guy with the glove.
TSA officers are about to have a lot more in common with gym teachers, actually, when they unionize. You knew they would, right? Despite the claims of the original architects of the sodden, hapless Homeland Security Department — Federalizing airport security will make us safer! The disaster of 9/11 was the result of insufficient federal regulation! — the waddling classes that make up the Transportation Security Administration have been authorized by an act of the Pelosi Congress to organize into a union. Like teachers. Or post-office workers. Except with rubber gloves and a license to probe.
It’s not about job security. As long as the dusty slums of Somalia and Pakistan keep steeping their young folk in crackpot theology — and they show no signs of letting up — we’re all going to be pulling out our laptops and taking off our shoes and submitting to the glove. Unlike, say, auto workers, who face international competition and shrinking margins, TSA employees face an almost unlimited future of expanded opportunity. What unionization represents for them — as it represents for gym teachers everywhere — is impunity. Work-performance standards that make them unfireable, blameless, and unaccountable. A culture of entitlement—to breaks, to retirement benefits, to freedom from customer complaints or market forces.
While the performance of America’s public schools declined steadily over the decades, did the teachers’ unions become more or less powerful? And so when — God forbid — planes start dropping out of the sky, does anyone think that the Association of Transportation Safety Workers (or whatever it will be called) will get smaller? Not a chance. There’s only one solution to the problem of government incompetence, and that’s more government. We’re going to need more gloves.
Be honest now: When you stumble through the security line, personal belongings every which way, clutching your shoes and belt to your chest the way a ravished maiden clutches her dress in a Victorian melodrama, do you feel safer? On the other hand, as you board the plane and struggle down the aisle with your (face it: too large) carry-on and bump along the rows, check out your stolid, irritated, loaded-for-bear fellow passengers. Now imagine that the guy in 22C starts to light his underpants, or mix his tiny shampoo into his tiny conditioner. Do you have any doubt that the lady in 22D, or the fat guy in 22A, or the wiry old guy in 22B, or the hipster plugged in to the iPod in 22H will hesitate, for a moment, to kick his ass?
We all know who will save us from the terrorists, and it isn’t the guys in the uniforms. It’s one another. Every furious, cranky, stressed-out passenger on the plane. We’re one another’s first — and last — line of defense. And I don’t know about you, but that honestly makes me feel safer. A lot safer.
Government, as usual, plays only a peripheral — and mostly meaningless — role. Incapacitated by an absurd reluctance to use effective and proven profiling techniques — meaning, essentially, that we all get hassled and probed in equal measure, whether we’re Muslims from Somalia by way of Hamburg and Islamabad or Methodists from Indianapolis by way of Danville, Ohio — the gloved and chubby TSA crowd is stuck looking for things — weapons, liquids, suspicious objects — while the rest of us are busy looking for terrorists, which is a lot easier. Because, as we all know, bombs don’t blow up planes. Terrorists do.
The rubber gloves, the body-scanning equipment, the zip-lock baggies of toothpaste and moisturizer — these are just props in an elaborate and nationwide kabuki-theater exercise, in which the cast of characters — us, with our awkward and ungainly possessions; them, with their groaning shirt buttons and roaming fingers — go through the motions of pretending to believe that it’s this, and not the tripwire-ready vigilante mob on Flight 109 from LAX, that’s delivering true airplane safety.
In their place, wouldn’t you vote to go union? It worked for the gym teachers.
— Rob Long is a contributing editor of National Review and a contributor to Ricochet. This article will appear in the Dec. 17, 2010, issue of National Review.