The day toothpaste and shampoo became contraband, I flew from Dallas to Montreal by way of Chicago. It was not until after I flew back to Dallas a few days later that I began to suspect I had accidentally violated the new rules aimed at preventing terrorists from bringing liquid explosives onto airplanes.
Is it me, or is it the rules? I am naturally inclined to favor the latter explanation, for which there is substantial evidence. The ban on liquids, creams, and gels follows a pattern in which the government reacts to the latest terrorist plot with measures that seem designed to reassure the public by creating the illusion of security.
When an airline agent told me about the new rules, I obediently transferred toothpaste, eyeglass cleaner, and hand lotion from my computer bag to the little rolling suitcase I had planned to carry on but now had to check. In retrospect, however, the carry-on bag still contained several items that could have been used to conceal liquid explosives, including gel-ink pens, highlighters, and a Liquid Paper correction pen. Worse, although I refrained from buying beverages at the Chicago airport, I bought a salad to eat on the flight to Montreal, and it came with a little container of dressing.
According to an expert cited by the International Herald Tribune, "about 5 ounces…of a powerful explosive like nitroglycerin might be enough" to bring down a plane. If I can inadvertently smuggle enough liquid to do the job, surely a determined terrorist could do it on purpose–especially since the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is letting passengers carry on baby formula, breast milk, and baby food.
The exceptions are understandable but also puzzling, since the recently disrupted terrorist plot, the one that prompted the new rules, reportedly involved liquid explosive disguised as baby formula. It is also hard to figure out why the TSA is completely banning "gel cap type pills" but allowing each passenger to carry up to four ounces of over-the-counter liquid medication, contact lens solution, nasal spray, or eye drops.
These inconsistencies are reminiscent of the reaction to Richard Reid's attempted ignition of a shoe bomb on an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami in 2001. Congress responded by passing a law banning lighters from airplanes. But Reid himself did not use a lighter; he used matches, which are still permitted.
Before the latest scare, the TSA urged Congress to repeal the lighter ban, arguing that enforcing it, which involves confiscating some 30,000 lighters a day, is a distraction from more serious threats–the same rationale the agency offered when it revised its rules to permit small scissors and tools. The ban on lighters presumably is here to stay now that they can be portrayed not just as ignition devices but as potential vessels for liquid explosives.
Under the new rules, screeners are expected to keep an eye out for dozens of additional everyday items that people commonly take with them when they travel. How many toothpaste tubes, deodorant sticks, and teething rings will they seize every day, and how many will they miss? More important, what else will they miss while they're looking for toiletries, beverages, and gel-impregnated toys?
Eventually, we're told, the government will deploy new scanners that can detect liquid explosives. But that does not necessarily mean the rules will be changed. After all, the TSA continues to ban pocket knives and various other sharp objects from airplane cabins, even though cockpit doors have been reinforced and security procedures revised since 9/11 to prevent hijackers from using such items to take control of an airplane.
When the TSA started allowing such seemingly innocuous items as cuticle scissors and tiny screwdrivers, it prompted howls of outrage. Once something has been banned, it is presumed dangerous. And if we are inconvenienced, conventional wisdom holds, we must be safer.