More than a few travelers have noted over the years that airports are among the few places on the planet where the Iron Curtain never came down.
But since Sept. 11, fear of terrorism has pushed security to the top of the priority list, eclipsing concerns over privacy, constitutional protections — and even simple decency.
Travelers are now poked, prodded and searched in unprecedented ways. Even personal grooming products, like nail clippers, are forbidden in a close-the-barn-door reaction to the September 11 hijackings.
Since the recent attempt to destroy an airliner with the world's most literal hotfoot, random passengers are required to remove their shoes for inspection.
Identity checks are de rigueur and questioning can be intense and intrusive in an environment patrolled by armed National Guardsmen.
New scanning devices are supposed to reveal passengers' secrets — right down to their bone structures. And along with the interrogations and technology are personal searches that can be distressingly hands-on.
Even as new security technology appears, its reliability is suspect. Facial recognition systems touted as capable of identifying terror suspects mingling in a crowd have been tried — and found wanting.
In a study of the use of such technology in Tampa, the ACLU concluded that "the system made many false matches between people photographed by police video cameras … and photographs in the department's database of criminals, sex offenders, and runaways."
Innocent, if potentially frightening, errors are bad enough, but there's the danger of malicious conduct.
With tensions so high, and the authority of security personnel so inflated, abuses are inevitable.
Just before Thanksgiving, New York Times columnist Joe Sharkey reported that "female travelers are routinely frisked, patted down and 'wanded' by male guards. … While most guards behave professionally, the opportunity for busy hands is obvious …"
Women are supposed to be able to request female guards, but the request is often laughed off — or the female guard turns out to be equally abusive.
Even flight crews aren't immune. The Association of Flight Attendants complains that airplane crewmembers have been groped and mistreated at checkpoints.
We're unlikely to see an improvement in behavior now that airport security has been federalized.
As Richard Rahn points out on behalf of the Cato Institute, "With civil service protections, it would be very difficult to fire any of them. Hence, the incentive to do a consistently outstanding job and always be courteous to harried passengers would be lacking."
Even in the absence of malice, behavior normal in a free society can be hazardous to your liberty at an airport.
Twenty-two-year-old Neil Godfrey was barred from a United Airlines flight for carrying a copy of Edward Abbey's "Hayduke Lives" — a novel popular with the Green set. R.V. Scheide of the Sacramento News & Review was taken into custody by security personnel at LAX and forced to destroy photos he'd taken while working on a story about airport security.
Even an FAA spokesman admitted that police and National Guard troops were out of line in the matter.
One of the few comforts to be found in the new security regime is the knowledge that even VIPs get hassled.
Rep. John Dingell had to drop his trousers after an airport metal detector identified his steel hip joint as a potential implement of destruction.
A Secret Service agent of Arab-American descent made headlines after he was tossed off an airplane — quite possibly because of his currently unfashionable ethnicity.
It's grim stuff.
Do we really have to choose between becoming shut-ins or suffering a nostalgic tour of the old Eastern Bloc every time we visit in-laws across the country?
That's not necessarily our fate.
Robert Poole of the Reason Public Policy Institute says that attention is misdirected when focused on passengers — he wants it refocused on people who have access to more than a plane's seats.
"Background checks would be required not only for screeners but for all who have access to the planes and tarmac. All such people would be required to have unforgeable biometric ID cards. And the entire airport perimeter would be controlled — a place where armed National Guard troops might actually be useful."
Under Poole's proposal, taking passengers out of the spotlight might alleviate some of the pain of traveling.
Mark Thornton of the Ludwig von Mises Institute offers a radical and intriguing proposal.
First, he points out that universal security standards imposed on airlines from above may actually be dangerous: "Terrorists want airport security to be predictable so that they'll know what they face in the airport and on the plane."
Then he suggests that the federal government remove itself from the airport security business entirely.
"Only with private airports and completely unregulated security can terrorists be presented with an efficient, unknown, and ever-changing security challenge. Every airport would be different. Every airline would be different. Security measures could be changed regularly (and irregularly, for that matter)."
That's a provocative suggestion — it would force terrorists to face dynamic security standards rather than a known, one-size-fits-all hurdle. Thornton's proposal would also give travelers a say in the way that they're treated when they fly.
Passengers comforted by tight security might choose airlines that follow procedures similar to those currently evolving at airports.
People protective of their liberty, or willing to take more responsibility for their own safety, could choose carriers that offer a less-intrusive experience at the terminal.
Such a scheme might well leave Iron Curtain-style security in place at many airport terminals.
But, as befits a free society, people would have to choose to be treated that way.
J.D. Tuccille is a Flagstaff-based Senior Editor of The Henry Hazlitt Foundation's Free-Market.Net (www.free-market.net/).
— Arizona Daily Sun