Finally, we have an answer to the 14-year-old question: In the wake of 9/11, why hasn't there been another successful act of aircraft terrorism in America? It's probably because hardly anybody's been trying, and those who did have been legendarily incompetent, which is how you're remembered if you try (and fail) to blow up your own underwear.
It certainly isn't because of the fervor and brilliance of Transportation Security Administration screeners, those sometimes sleepy, erratic and poorly paid workers who are our first line of defense against suicidal fanatics, wheelchair-using grannies and reasonably sized shampoo bottles.
It was reported Monday that undercover agents smuggled banned items such as pretend explosives and weapons through TSA checkpoints in an astonishing 67 out of 70 attempts. That's about a 95 percent success rate. I don't even have a 95 percent success rate at finding a long-term spot for my car at major airports these days, but apparently if I can surmount my parking challenges, wangling my firepower onto the plane will be a relative breeze.
Those of us who fly frequently didn't need this TSA report to tell us the agency's security system is a slow, maddening and ineffective method of protecting planes and passengers. It amazes me that there has never been a reality TV series taking place entirely in our TSA lines, where the behavior is a lot like that of slow-moving drivers on the Long Island Expressway.
The passenger 99 spots from the front of the line sneers and sighs at the man just in front of him, who, distracted by his phone, hasn't moved up, allowing a two-foot gap. "I might be 45 minutes from getting through this, but your slowness in creeping up two feet is where I'm choosing to focus my fury, sexting hipster scum."
Children whine, then cry, and their parents whine, then cry, back. And the extra-special travelers breeze through their extra-special fast line, essentially because they have paid money and undergone a process to exempt themselves from suspicion, which is both infuriating and a nice metaphor for . . . everything, really.
When you finally get close to the ID checker, the adorable middle-aged sisters from Des Moines directly in front of you have their tickets and driver's licenses stashed at the bottom of purses the size of Mazda Miatas. As they paw for the necessaries, they run across pictures of grandchildren, which they share with the TSA dude.
Off with the shoes, the belts, the jackets. Put your wallet in the bowl. Every time I do that when leaving New York, I think, stunned, "I just put my wallet in a bowl to go through a machine where it's going to come out 15 feet away from me. In Queens. There's no way it will still be there." But it always is.
Then comes the ritual confiscation of nearly every toiletry I own, my bottle of water and my cigarette lighter. Sometimes. Not always. One day they let the lighter slide, but the next week they snatched my Bic as if . . . it could start a fire. Sometimes my 12-ounce 4-in-1 body wash-shampoo-conditioner-dish detergent gets through; sometimes it's flung in the trash. There's no consistency.
Sometimes the TSA employees, who start at about $13 per hour, are efficient and kindly. Sometimes they're sleepy, argumentative nudnicks. Rarely, apparently, are they effective at keeping contraband off planes.
There has been, since 9/11, a debate on how to balance inconvenience against safety. But now we're seeing proof of what many of us frequent fliers always suspected as we sat on the floor putting our shoes back on. There is no balance, because this system doesn't offer safety. It just provides inconvenience, and increased profits for the industrial titans I like to call Big Shampoo.