A Thing I Published #22: Vanity Fair

Writing for Vanity Fair was pleasant. Very nice editor, smooth process. So smooth I no longer even remember any of it, to be honest. But now that I just read this again, I realize I was writing about the potential of viruses breaking out at airports and measures to stop them. In 2014. I believe I was right: they were searching for symptoms of Ebola, with largely useless tactics, which is a completely different ballgame from COVID. Anyway, here goes another blast from the past.



OCTOBER 31, 2014

On Monday, New Jersey governor Chris Christie defended his decision to detain health-care worker Kaci Hickox under a New Jersey Ebola quarantine policy similar to ones adopted by several states with this cheerful quote: “Any of us have seen people who are traveling and they’ve been stopped, whether they are late for a plane or whatever they are doing, they get upset and angry. That’s fine. I have absolutely nothing but good will for [Hickox] going forward. She’s a good person and went over and was doing good work over in West Africa.”

For six years, I was one of the Transportation Security Administration agents who stopped airline passengers at checkpoints, regularly making them both upset and angry. Often, as Christie suggested, they were late for their planes. Usually, I was stopping them from doing important things for very stupid, federally mandated reasons. For instance, over the course of my duty I sometimes had to look airline pilots in the eye and tell them, with a straight face, that it was necessary to confiscate items from their carry-ons due to the possibility that the items could potentially be used to hijack their own planes. I did this supposedly in the interest of the safety of the American public. After such confiscations, I used to turn to my fellow T.S.A. agents and speculate about the chances the pilot would swing the plane around and crash it into the airport for revenge.

The nail-clipper confiscations, as with most official actions on airport checkpoints, were security theater, much like the quarantine measures that health-care workers such as Hickox are now being subjected to at some entry points around the United States.

If I were a federal agent at a U.S. airport tasked with enforcing some of the recently implemented policies that travelers arriving from Ebola hot zones be checked for Ebola-like symptoms, the first thing I would wonder is if my job even made any sense. We know that Ebola is not terribly contagious until the patient is quite ill. A passenger like Thomas Eric Duncan, who flew to Dallas with Ebola incubating in his body and lied about his close contact with a dying Ebola patient just days before, could not have been singled out by any kind of Ebola spot-check: the infected exhibit virtually no symptoms when the virus is incubating. In yet another example of an airport security measure straight out of Catch-22,the fact of the matter is that a traveler carrying the Ebola virus in its early stages cannot be identified by superficial security checks (and is not much of a threat to the general population), while a person carrying the Ebola virus in its advanced, contagious stage can be detected by travel security checkpoints (but is often too sick to travel anyway).

All of this would perhaps be less absurd if the tools with which officials were attempting to detect the virus at airports weren’t completely useless. Much like the largely ineffective full-body scanners we employ at T.S.A. to attempt to detect concealed weapons on passengers, finding incubation-stage Ebola in a crowded airport amounts to a taxpayer-funded search for fleas conducted through a shattered magnifying glass.

The thermal no-contact fever detectors in place at a lot of airports report an alarmingly number of false positives, as one 2011 scientific study reported. The scanners do not measure body core temperature, the essential indicator of a febrile response to infectious disease; rather, they detect skin-surface temperature, which can change based on many factors unrelated to illness such as sunburn, room temperature, and even emotional states, as an enraged Hickox claimed when her skin temperature reportedly rose, right along with her temper, as the wheels of bureaucracy creaked into motion and deposited her into a quarantine. Back in 2010, we at the T.S.A. quietly used thermal imagers on crowds at O’Hare airport. Agents I spoke to who were in charge of running the scanners at the time used to say that thermal-imaging duty was a joke: they claimed the technology was so poor as to make it all but a complete waste of time.

Governments have tried in the past to utilize airport security as a means by which to contain viral outbreaks, and we have studies to prove how ineffective those efforts were. A 2003 Canadian report on the SARS outbreak and the accompanying airport-screening measures put in place to stop the contagion showed that the extra security didn’t detect a single case of the virus. At best, the Ebola spot-check would work if all passengers behaved honestly at all times. As soon as someone hides or chooses to opt-out of disclosing the fact that he or she was recently in the vicinity of a potentially Ebola-infected area or person, the integrity of the security system collapses (fevers controlled through the use of medication could similarly foil these efforts). In essence, Ebola interrogations amount to a new iteration of, “Did you pack your own bags? And have you been in possession of your bags at all times?,” asked of passengers by airline security since the 1988 Lockerbie bombing. No one is likely to want to admit to having been near an Ebola hot zone at an airport security checkpoint knowing that such a disclosure might lead to a three-week quarantine. The only thing that such honor-system questioning really accomplishes is hassling people and causing delays.

And the biggest problem with quarantine measures, like the grandma and grandpa full-body pat-downs mindlessly administered day in and day out by the T.S.A., is that we are hassling and delaying precisely the wrong people. The one problem I’ve always had with the term “security theater” is the connotation of playhouse harmlessness. We all have to put up with a little annoying bureaucracy in times of national danger. So goes the typical rationalization offered by politicians. But, as any cost-benefit analyst will tell you, the bureaucratic tangles that result from such security theater can have very real, even deadly effects.

study in Applied Economics on the unintended consequences of post-9/11 airport security found that the substitution of driving for flying by those seeking to avoid the ever-increasing security inconveniences likely resulted in more than 2,000 road fatalities from 2001 to 2005. Senseless attempts to make air travel safer by confiscating the carry-on items and bottled water only gave people incentive to road-trip to their destinations, greatly increasing their chances of death. Security theater isn’t just some harmless bureaucratic placebo and fact of modern-day life: it can discourage activities and behavior in such a way as to have real, pernicious effects upon society. The health-care workers upon whom the senseless quarantine measures have fallen the hardest are angry, and rightfully so. The measures will do nothing to secure the U.S. from the threat of an Ebola outbreak; they will, in fact, only hamper the very real efforts of the people we’re depending on to quell the outbreak.

Like telling a pilot she can’t be trusted to safely maintain control over a pocket knife while she flies a 747, whisking courageous health-care workers away into quarantine on the pretense that they are incapable of monitoring their own health is not only absurd, it is downright insulting, and possibly even dangerous.

%d bloggers like this: