Fresh Flowers and Small Robots

The Open-Security Airport of 2010

by Michael Swanwick

Like most Americans regularly subjected to the discomforts and indignities of airport security, I have concluded that it is almost all “security theater.” That is, a series of empty gestures meant to reassure travelers that it is safe to board an airplane. Conceivably it may also help deter would-be terrorists. Certainly it has captured none – or we would surely have been told.

Why not exchange this Theater of Misery, then, for a Theater of Optimism? Something equally reassuring, potentially more effective, and not at all oppressive. It could be done with minimal preparation, modest cost, and no new technology. I propose a voluntary pilot program of one small airport, where security is so easy to pass through that it is once again possible for families to meet a traveling relative as he or she gets off the jetliner.

Imagine this happy airport of the very near future: Gone are the TSA employees who currently check boarding passes to make certain that only passengers enter the waiting areas. They’ve been replaced by or retrained as concierges – politely and efficiently taking coats and carry-on and placing them on the conveyor belts for the X-ray machines. They also answer questions about schedules and airport facilities, which is not technically the job of security, but makes life more pleasant for everybody. There are no lines for the metal detectors, because their numbers have been doubled or tripled. Passengers now stroll through casually, with their dignities and tempers intact.

Most amazingly, nobody takes their shoes off. The possibility of shoe bombs is still very real. But so is the possibility of an obsidian knife or a ceramic gun strapped to a passenger’s body – and only a select few are checked for those. However, no one thinks for an instant that they are less safe than before. This is because small robots trundle up and down the lines, projecting a laser grid over their shoes, and occasionally stopping to inhale a sudden whoosh of air. These robots are not at all threatening – their housing has been designed by Industrial Light and Magic, the same people who created R2D2 for George Lukas’s Star Wars movies – but they are reassuringly high-tech. They are clearly sampling the air for trace chemicals associated with explosives.

While this is a worthy and admirable emphasis for protectors to take, it is also profoundly and narrowlyoverspecialized.  It reflects a counterfactual assumption that, given sufficient funding, these communities can not only anticipate all future shocks, but prepare adequately to deal with them on a strictly in-house basis, through the application of fiercely effective professional action.

It is not necessary that the robots actually function as bomb sniffers. (Though I’m sure the defense industry would be happy to design such devices.) All that is needed is that they reassure our friends and unnerve our foes. The DHS is widely believed to possess sinister technology and worse intentions. It is time to recognize this as being not a weakness but an advantage.

In this scenario the DHS has embraced its evil image and put it to work. Cheap silvered plastic bubbles, of the sort used to hide surveillance cameras in casinos, are bolted to the walls. Electric cables run to them, painted the same color as the wall, obviously to camouflage them. Sconces directly below the bubbles hold ceramic vases containing fresh-cut flowers. The flowers draw the eye right to the bubbles, while looking like an attempt to disguise their presence. Passengers feel safer. Evildoers assume the worst.

Similar examples of benign deceit come and go, as the DHS fine-tunes public awareness of its presence. Trip-beams cause green lights to flash reassuringly as a traveler passes. Stepping on a pressure plate triggers a musical “all-clear” note. Decorative kinetic sculpture moves gracefully in time with foot traffic.

Passengers chosen for random security checks no longer resent this necessity. They are taken to a pleasant and comfortable room where, after their interview, they are given complimentary chits for food and drink on their airliners. At random intervals, two or three times a day, a bell rings and a cheerful voice announces over the intercom that another lucky passenger being checked has just received a hundred-dollar credit for the duty-free shops. Light applause fills the airport.

In such an environment, a nervous or fearful individual stands out more clearly than is the case today.

All this is done with existing technology. (The wall-bubbles are sometimes used to field-test a variety of passive detectors, but that is just a side benefit.) The added cost is moderate, and the bulk of it – particularly the added space required to make the security process comfortably uncrowded – is absorbed by the airport itself. It is considered a small price to pay for a great deal of positive publicity.

Best of all, since the security process has been simplified and sped up, it is no longer necessary to keep non-passengers out of the waiting areas. Once again, the weary traveler can come up the ramp from the plane to find his or her family waiting with smiles and open arms.

In their hurry to get home, not one in ten passengers notes the plaque reading, “This Facility Meets DHS Open Security Standards.” Nor do they notice the program’s certification that the airport is Security Hardened and Family Safe. They only know that they feel safer and more at ease than any commercial air traveler has since the Twentieth Century.

The DHS has won one small, quiet victory in the War on Terror.

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