Trained Military No Longer Permitted To Fly

On my recent trip to America, at the extra security checks near the gate at Heathrow, I ran into trouble with the new, patently ridiculous security question.

“Do you have anything in your bag which could be used as a weapon?”

The immediately obvious response was “By whom?”. We got into a rather fractious debate with me refusing to say “No”, thereby speaking for the improvised killing capabilities, or otherwise, of every other passenger on the plane, and him warning me that I was in danger of being “considered a threat”, and that I should “stop joking”.

In the end, I agreed to say No to the question “Do you have anything in your bag which could be deemed a weapon?”. And, of course, as revenge the guy followed me and made sure I was picked out for extra-special bag search and screening.

However, what if I was a trained Marine, Para or SAS operative, able to strangle people with headphone cords, bludgeon them to death with my laptop or choke them to death on my water bottle? I would have to either take no luggage whatsoever, or say “Yes”, at which point I wouldn’t be permitted to fly.

This new question is dumb. They might as well ask “Are you planning to hijack the plane?” What is sad is that lots of people, even some who realise the implications of what’s being asked, will say “No” just to get past it.

Later, when leaving San Francisco for Toronto, some dude felt my crotch in a really quite intimate fashion because I set off the metal detector alarm. I said “Some day soon, we’ll be going through these things naked”, and one guard said “Well, that would make it a lot easier.” It’s salami tactics… People would be in open revolt if they’d introduced all this stuff at once.

21 thoughts on “Trained Military No Longer Permitted To Fly

  1. I have to agree entirely. Unfortunately the very nature of the questio leads me to think of ways I could smuggle a weapon on board or fashion one out of available items.

    I’m not going to list obvious ways (in case I have a devious mind and no one else thought of them). I have no intention of bringing down a plane (especially not if I’m on it).

    I think the idea is to make people feel more secure – not to actually make them secure.

  2. I have always been thinking that you can easily stab somebody with mechanical pencils, break your glasses’ lenses and use them as blades, or buy a red wine (glass, obviously…) bottle from the stewards, hold it by the neck to break it on the seats’ armrests, and use it as a knife – seen that “in many movies”, and I know for a fact that it *is* a sharp weapon.

    But they’ll get paranoid about those only once somebody really uses them as weapons – since all this security paranoia is not about real security, but just about perceived one.

    (And yes, I might get a check on some blacklist, after somebody reads this statement of mine.)

  3. Ask him: Can a laptop be used as a weapon? Can a water bottle be used as a weapon? Can my shirt be used as a weapon? (eg. strangle someone with it)

    His answer is your answer.

  4. All the questions they ask are dumb, not just the new one:

    Q: Did you pack your bags yourself?
    A: No, I routinely carry bags packed by other people, because I like not knowing what I’m carrying around with me, especially when it involves travel. It’s like a lottery every time!

    Q: Have your bags been in your possession the whole time?
    A: No, I often leave my belongings in public places where people can steal them or otherwise sabotage them without me knowing about it.

    Q: Has anyone asked you to take anything on board?
    A: Yes, I’ve got some heroine in my pocket given to me by a dodgy guy with a beard and someone else’s gun in my bag. I always co-operate with criminals when I know in advance that I’m going to have to pass through several layers of rigorous security checks.

    Let’s face it, if you’re knowingly up to no good, unless you’re a total moron you’re not going to answer truthfully. If you truthfully answer any of these questions in an unsatisfactory way, you probably have bigger problems than being denied the right to get on an aeroplane.

    As you say, they may as well just ask if you’re a terrorist or hijacker in the hopes that some day, someone will say “well, actually yes, I suppose you’d better have this” and promptly hand over their explosives.

  5. I think you were just being a smart ass. The question is not “could a trained ninja possibly use any of your belongings as a weapon”, the question is “could any of your belongings reasonably be used as a weapon”. You may not use a kitchen knife as a weapon, but it could reasonably be used as such.

    You could also answer “Are you planning to hijack the plane?” with “if it turns out the *pilot* is a terrorist who plans to smash the plane into a building, then I plan to”, or “my conscious mind isn’t aware of any plan I may have, but my subconscious might be hiding something”, or “only if the guy next to me has a thermonuclear device and will blow up the plane unless I hijack it”.

  6. Cameron: Good idea. I might try that next time.

    Jason: I wasn’t being a smartass. Your rephrasing of the question, to add the word “reasonably”, is a better question (although still not great) but it’s not the question I was asked.

  7. Gerv: the point is most questions asked on a day to day business are expecting a reasonable answer rather than a set of all possibilities, even if they don’t explicitly state it.

    “Where are you going for supper?” – “To Chez Paris unless it turns out that between the time I got reservations and the time I get there it closes or burns down or something”
    “What’s your dog’s name?” – “Mr. Fluffles, though I’m actually not sure because there’s a possibility that my memory of him was implanted by a secretive government organization.”

    I also don’t think these questions are meant to stop terrorists. I think they’re more meant to get normal people to think about and declare possible weapons before their bags going through the X-ray machine. Think about it, if you innocently had a knife in your bag, it would be better to be given an opportunity to declare it rather than having it go through the X-ray machine and having it look like you were possibly trying to sneak it on the plane.

  8. I think they’re more meant to get normal people to think about and declare possible weapons before their bags going through the X-ray machine.

    But there was no X-ray machine. I’d been through airport security. This was special, CYA, repetitive security at the gate, consisting of a guy asking dumb questions, and two other people searching bags at random. If I’d had a knife or other obvious weapon in my bag and forgotten about it, one would have hoped they’d have noticed by that point – if for no other reason than I could have passed it to someone on a flight which didn’t have the extra checks.

  9. Darcy: You noticed that, huh? Not sure. I probably overuse it, although “bloke” hasn’t disappeared.

  10. I wrote a blog post not too long ago about how we’re going to end up being on flights naked handcuffed to seats (to keep our hands to ourselves of course).

    It’s a logical progression.

    I get really worked up about the whole liquid thing. My argument comes down to if the terrorists got the idea from Die Hard and the TSA are trying to prevent that from happening then 1oz – 2oz of liquid is way to much.

    Just a tiny little bit of diehardexplode is enough to make a big bang and make a chair jump. What’s 2oz going to do?

  11. This is a game, and it’s not at all limited to airport security. It happens everywhere. Just say “no” and be done with it. It makes for an unpleasant life if everyone is always offended by everything.

    Of course it’s dumb, and it’s reasonable to wonder why they do this. I suspect that sometimes it’s easier to get you for a blatant lie than for whatever it is you actually did.

    But in this case I think Jason Barnabe’s explanation is the correct one. Simple as that. It doesn’t matter that there was no X-ray machine. You’re still subject to search.

  12. Yeah, it’s stupid. Our airplace screening procedure depends on terrorists being unable to lie. Because everyone knows that in their twisted form of Islam, Allah says it’s fine to slaughter thousands of people, but lying is a no-no.

    It’s similar to my old high school’s weapons policy. The banned a numebr of explicit weapons, but then went on to say that “anything that can be used as a weapon” was banned. So I started asking, what about teeth, should we leave our teeth at home? What about our bones, so that we can’t hit people. Fingernails too, in case out boneless jellyfish-like bodies squirm over and scratch someone.

    Someone threw a pencil at a friend of mine. He deflected it with his hand, and it bounced back at the thrower, and stuck him in the hand. The tip of the lead broke off in his hand (serves him right for throwing a pencil). My friend was suspended because since the pencil came back from him and hurt the other kid, they reasoned HE was at fault. After an appeal and a threat to go to the school board with it, the suspension was removed form his record. This was in 1994. Insanity in the name of security is not new.

  13. Heh, I ran into not quite as much trouble (but still angry looks) when I went to the US for the CSUN conference. Of course, you get all these questions:

    • Did you pack your bags yourself?
    • Where did you pack your bags?
    • Did anyone else put things in your bags?


    This was all fine.

    Then they asked: “Are you taking anything someone else gave you?”. And I thought for a bit and answered “Why yes, cookies my mum gave me.”

    Somehow they thought that was a problem and wanted to know what kind of cookies, etc. etc.
    During the remainder of the interview they continuously stared at me with this angry “You must be up to something even though you don’t want to admit it.” look. I guess I won’t take cookies next time…

  14. I also find it infuriating that “security” often consists of asking questions to which you don’t really want people to think, you just want them to answer “no”. The security guy was probably furious that because of your conscience, you just made his day a LOT tougher – shoot, maybe he even had to stay after his shift for a debriefing due to your honesty. :)

    Not that they would, could, or should have to admit it, but I imagine most of them would prefer you not think about the questions and just give the desired response – unless, as someone mentioned above, you’re actually a terrorist.

    One other thing to keep in mind is that they have random air marshalls attempt to go through security with various weapons, with the intent of checking whether security is doing their job. So you, in his eyes, could have been a guy sent to test whether they actually listen to and enforce the correct answers. Of course, the fact that they manufacture such ridiculous questions, and then set up a test to enforce such limited and rigid rules, takes the focus right back off the security situation that was the whole point to start with. Sad, just sad.

  15. People don’t realize that most criminals get nervous when asked these types of questions. Although we may find them mundane and stupid, to a person intent on doing something bad, they can be very unnerving. This, in turn, can cause them to become evasive or act otherwise unusual. It is these unusual mannerisms that the authorities are (or should be) looking for; not the actual answers to the questions.

    Of course, this doesn’t mean that the questions themselves cannot be more rational.

  16. sounds like you were just being a bell-end, and not even in a particularly smart way. you’re obviously the guy that always thinks he was the first to come up with such witty little comebacks. what’s difficult about answering such a simple question with the right answer? how would you feel if some loser made your job difficult in a similar way? nothing is a ‘weapon’ unless it was either designed to be one or you plan to use it as one. particularly when used in that context. if i was him i would have taken great pleasure in demanding the rubber glove treatment.

    having said that i have recently accidentally smuggled both liquids and knives through – so the x-ray machine etc. are not that good. they do need to do some checking for shifty behaviour too.

  17. ed: The right answer is “I don’t know whether any of my stuff can be used as a weapon – who did you have in mind?”. Basically, you are saying I should have answered the question I thought they should have asked rather than the one they did ask. Right? My integrity is important to me, and I want to answer questions truthfully. The truthful answer to the question posed is the above one because, as worded, it’s a really dumb question.

    nothing is a ‘weapon’ unless it was either designed to be one or you plan to use it as one.

    If they’d asked “Is there anything in your bag which is designed to be used as a weapon or you plan to use as a weapon?”, then I’d have had no hesitation in answering “No”. But that’s not what they asked. They asked if anything “could be used as a weapon”. They don’t just pull these questions out of thin air, right? They think hard about the wording – that’s why it’s the same every time. And that’s why I’m objecting to the dumbness of this one.

    If I come round your house and attack you with a kitchen knife, can I object if they charge me with “assault with a deadly weapon” because it’s a kitchen knife, and therefore not designed to be used as a weapon? What about a baseball bat? A broom handle? My laptop computer (which is pretty hard and solid)? Things can be weapons without being designed to be weapons. It depends on the intent of the wielder. Which is why the question should ask about my intent, and not about the form of objects in my bag.

  18. this has nothing to do with integrity or weaponry. it has to do with linguistic pedantry that isn’t even correct, applied indiscriminately and out of context in the quest to look like a smart ass.

    i’m sure they ask the question to thousands of people every day, many of whom will have some integrity. how many of them do you think kick up a fuss about it? and howcome those who do are always the most objectionable and socially naive?

  19. Of course, ed, you’re right. I like being detained while I travel. I positively enjoy running the risk of not catching my flight. I didn’t really want to get there anyway. It’s daring to skirt the edges of acceptable droid behaviour in this way. I’m a rebel, and proud of it!

    i’m sure they ask the question to thousands of people every day, many of whom will have some integrity. how many of them do you think kick up a fuss about it? and howcome those who do are always the most objectionable and socially naive?

    So, given that presumably you don’t spend time hanging out at security checkpoints thereby gathering actual data for that last assertion, your assertion is “if you disagree with me, you must be objectionable and socially naive”? Forgive me for not being bowled over by the force of your argumentation.

    According to the Transport Security Administration in the US, “The screeners decide what could or could not be used as a weapon“. So how am I to know? Mind-reading? You will say “well, it’s common sense”. Really? A ballpoint pen was confiscated because it could be used as a weapon. Should I have said “yes” if my bag contained a ballpoint pen?

    I’m not the only one pointing out this is dumb. A CNN Security Analyst makes the point in this transcript that “anything could be used as a weapon”. Several people made similar points on Bruce Schneier’s blog recently.