Any amputee who travels the nation’s airways even semi-regularly now knows the drill. First, get your computer and liquids out of your carry-on and put them in (separate) bins, along with your belt. Second, explain to the TSA official who points at your shoes that they’re still on not because you’re a moron, but because you wear a prosthesis. (I don’t recommend using those exact words.) Third, step into the full body scanner and get irradiated. Fourth, emerge with a healthy x-ray glow and submit to the inevitable swabbing of hands and/or prosthesis. Fourth, smile as if steps 1-4 were the equivalent of a 5-star meal and get the hell on your way.
That’s why I was so surprised when I recently traveled through an airport only to discover that TSA had dramatically altered this process.
The first and most bizarre aspect of the new protocol consisted of instructing us not to take computers and liquids out of our bags and making sure to leave our belts on. While it explained why I couldn’t find any bins to put said items in before scanning, this is the equivalent of teaching someone how to catch a football with both hands and then one day suddenly announcing that the old way is illegal, and you instead have to reign the pigskin in with your face.
I looked quizzically at the TSA official who stood there shouting at everyone to do the opposite of what they’ve been trained to do for the last four years. He looked down, saw my prosthesis – I was in shorts – and said, “It’s part of our new MI program.” I replied, “Oh,” nodding wisely as if I understood the acronym. Then, realizing I had no idea what he was talking about, I then asked him, “What is MI?”
He told me, and though I tried to burn the words into my brain, they left it before I even boarded the aircraft an hour later. However, my best recollection is that MI stands for either (a) mitigated interference, (b) mitigated intervention, (c) minimal interference, or (d) minimal intervention. Whatever the acronym stands for, I said, “That sounds somewhat sinister.”
The TSA agent happily informed me that MI is a new program where TSA keeps us all safe by not doing any of the things that it has historically done. He made vague reference to “constant surveillance” and “behavioral analysis” as the building blocks of this new security effort. His smile then turned to a grimace as he noted that security lines tended to back up rapidly using this new method, because the public can’t figure out what to do in the absence of bins and the various accoutrements that are supposed to fill them.
I then went to walk into the full body scanner when I realized, to my horror, that it didn’t exist. Instead, I was looking at a basic metal detector. Since I was wearing a prosthesis that would undoubtedly trigger the device, the TSA agent waved me into the holding pen for People Who Have So Much Metal In Or On Them That They Will Cause the Metal Detector to Explode, where I waited for 5 minutes until a “male assist” could be located.
I received a full-body pat down – fond memories of getting groped between 2009-2012 swam through my head – and then swabbed my hands and the prosthesis. I got the “all clear,” retrieved my luggage and went on my way.
MI: a comparative analysis
luggage. In the non-MI world – let’s call it BIN (Bins Is Normal) – I have to reach into the outer zipper of my suitcase to extract my plastic bag of liquids and then do the same with the computer in my backpack. I also have to pull my belt off, which, after 40-plus years of practice, I’ve become somewhat proficient at. When you’re standing in a line waiting to get screened, each of these things give you something to do, which is good. It fills up time otherwise spent staring, dead-eyed, at other travelers for whom the concepts of removing liquids, computers, belts (and for non-amputees, shoes) apparently rival quantum mechanics in their complexity.
Moreover, because we’ve been trained for BIN, MI apparently results in even longer screening snarls. In other words, being asked to do less screws us up more than a complicated, multi-step process that 7 out of 10 people still haven’t mastered. I find that more depressing than amusing. Advantage: BIN
the machine. In the MI world, you don’t have to stand with your hands over your head while getting blasted with rays that will one day turn you into the Hulk. (Or, more likely, sterilize you.) You just go through a metal detector. While this may be fine for the average person with no metal in their body, it means that TSA agents (a) can’t visually see where the prosthesis is on a fancy high-tech monitor, and (b) therefore have to do a full pat-down of your entire body, even when the clothes you’re wearing reveal the metal item(s). After all, perhaps you have more metal concealed elsewhere.
I contrast, the BIN approach produces said hi-tech image with color-coded indicators revealing where the metal is. Once you walk through the machine, a TSA agent is already waiting to pat down only those areas where they see yellow and to swab them. No wait. No shouted “male assist.” Altogether more efficient for amputees. Advantage: BIN.
the exit. In BIN-ville, after you’ve been cleared, you have to saunter back to your suitcase, backpack, and 2 bins (one with your belt and liquids, the other with your computer), and you have to reassemble yourself. Computer back in backpack; liquids back in carry-on; belt looped through pants.
But in the world of MI, you retrieve your items and simply walk off. No assembly required. Advantage: MI.
miscellany. MI apparently depends on some form of surveillance we can’t see, combined with behavioral analysis. (For example, the guy who’s sweating profusely while clutching his suitcase to his chest with eyes closed and repeating an unintelligible mantra over and over? Yeah, he’d qualify for additional screening.) The problem with this is (a) for all of my NSA-inspired paranoia, I have a hard time believing there are thousands of new hidden cameras tucked away in America’s major airports and tens of thousands of workers examining every video feed produced from them to identify Johnny Danger, and (b) while I find most TSA agents to be lovely people, I’m pretty sure they’re not getting trained by profiling specialists at Quantico.
BIN, on the other hand, forces me to do lots of things that at least create the illusion that dangerous things could be located. I’ll take the illusion of security over the “let’s shrug and give it an acronym [MI]” approach to screening. Advantage: BIN.
In this highly scientific analysis, BIN clearly surpasses MI in almost every measurable way. So the next time you’re stuck in a security line that isn’t moving at all, look for those wonderful plastic bins. If you don’t see them, curse MI.