Why the airport security breach doesn’t matter

So according to a piece in this month’s Atlantic Monthly, a magazine writer named Jeffrey Goldberg approached security at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in order to fly to Washington, D.C., having splashed water on his face to make it appear he was sweating nervously, wearing a coat in summer and an Osama bin Laden shirt, and claiming to have lost his photo ID. Oh, and he had a fake boarding pass. After a conversation with a security supervisor, he was allowed to pass (he doesn’t say whether he was allowed to board). Are you scared? I’m not. I’m embarrassed–for my profession. For this incident says more about magazines than it does about terror in the skies.

It’s a typical “magazine story,” meaning it has little basis in reality beyond its own sensations and narrative–the kind of concoction A.J. Jacobs has made a career out of over at Esquire, following Old Testament Biblical laws for a year, for instance, and writing up the hilarious, if predictable, result. More typically, you might take a celebrity bowling or rock climbing as an angle on a profile. It’s a made-up scenario that hopefully yields some interesting details and depends on the inventiveness and observational skill of the writer to make it sing. It’s a quest, and I can’t say many bad things about quest stories because I kind of like doing them. In this case, Goldberg’s criteria for a quest to test airport security was based less on a real-life terrorist approach and more on DIY ridiculousness.

It’s also possible he picked the wrong airport–half the things he’s astounded at can be explained simply by Minnesotans’ live-and-let-live attitude. He may appear to be a fish out of water, but here that gets you bemusement, not an arrest. He’s surprised, for instance, that his act of ripping up fake boarding passes in the men’s bathroom didn’t yield a testosterone-fueled, Bruce Willis-style vigilante confrontation from the restroom crowd. I doubt that would happen anywhere outside the movies, but least of all here–most of his fellow travelers probably averted their eyes, or assumed he had a good reason to rip things up; his mistress called, the flight’s off. What foreboding sign is the act of ripping up boarding passes supposed to indicate anyway? Maybe the boarding passes were so obviously fake, people thought he was nuts. If he’d been trying to fashion a knife, as he suggests earlier that a smart terrorist would do, someone might actually have looked up from their shoes. Here, we’re not going to stop you from making a fool of yourself; you’re on your own. And the coat in summer–hell, that’s not a red flag in Minnesota, that’s normal.

In the end, Goldberg doesn’t end up proving his theory at all, which is that airport security isn’t up to nabbing smart terrorists just the stupid ones. He acts like he thinks a stupid one might–and still doesn’t get caught. (Did his fake boarding pass ultimately allowed him to board? That’s where they actually scan the thing.) So…he’s not thinking like most terrorists, he doesn’t look like most terrorists, and he’s surprised no one cares? The only thing Goldberg has really proved is that Twin Citians still don’t give a damn about goofy New Yorkers.