Sanitary theatre

Sanitary theatre

Very few people remember Richard Reid. Even if I give you his nickname you might not twig, especially if you are blessed with being younger than a gen-Xer. 

Richard Reid is living at the expense of U.S. taxpayers in the maximum security facility in Florence, Colorado. He is serving three consecutive life sentences plus 110 years because the American justice system is a joke of epic proportions. Reid, also known as the Shoe bomber, pleaded guilty to several counts of terrorism. 

It is because of this man nobody remembers that we take our shoes off to run them through the xray machine before boarding a plane. Even those of us who, like me, make a point of flying barefoot in flip flops no matter the weather or time of year. And no, none of it makes any flight safer. 

In December 2001, a few short months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Reid was on a flight between Paris and Miami when he got caught trying to detonate explosives hidden in his shoes by striking a match against the sole.  

Of course everyone freaked out at the time. That’s more than understandable, mere months after 9/11. But since Reid nobody I know about has tried the same stunt. Not to give away secrets from the terrorist handbook, but a shoe bomb isn’t especially likely to detonate, certainly not with a match. 

Yet here we are,  20 years later, still taking off our shoes and standing around barefoot while flip flops inside which you could not fit anything beyond a stubborn smell get examined by really expensive security equipment. 

The term “security theatre” was coined by Bruce Schneier in his book, Beyond Fear. Schneier isn’t an easy man to follow or read, but on this particular subject he’s been pretty much bang on, if you’ll pardon the expression. It refers to the kinds of measures we subject ourselves to that do not actually keep anybody safer. They just make us feel vaguely like we’re trying, and that’s about it. 

Which naturally brings me to the COVID variant (sorry) of security theatre when flying between Canada and the United States. My goodness the lengths to which we go in order to not achieve very much. 

I started traveling again in November and intend to continue doing so as often as I can. I am not especially scared of COVID at this point, at least for myself. I am healthy and fit, with no underlying conditions except for a chronic penchant for mordant sarcasm, and I am fully vaccinated (that’s three jabs). I’m OK wearing masks in public until the end of times and generally speaking, keeping my distances from other humans does not cause me anxiety or pain. 

I am fully in favour of requiring every passenger to be fully vaccinated and I have zero problem uploading my proof of vaccination every time I check in for my flights. Providing negative COVID tests is an annoying and expensive administrative hassle but hey, I’m OK doing that too, until we’re satisfied that whatever variant the bug mutates into is no longer as deadly as alpha or even delta. The random extra tests when you get back to Canada are fine, too. Like, whatever. Swab away, see if I care. 

On the other hand, what I cannot abide is that stupid ArriveCAN app. Especially since nobody ever checks it. It’s so useless, it’s even worse than me removing my flip flops at security. 

The ArriveCAN app requires you to register a profile for each traveler in your party, and enter all kinds of details about your flights, where you’ve been, how long you were there and whether you not you’re suffering from a long list of physical symptoms. 

As every first-born child in the history of ever, when the signs warned me to download the app and enter all my information therein before flying back home, I diligently did it. Every single time. It took me several minutes, only to get to the “submit” button at the end and have the app refuse to do any sort of submitting whatsoever until I was back on Canadian soil. I have no idea why it didn’t register my information in Nashville or New York or Huntsville, but it never did. One fretful Air Canada employee in Nashville went so far as to print out the entire form for me (several pages) so I could fill out the “necessary” information manually. The lovely soul was worried I wouldn’t be allowed to go home without it. 

My tactic now is to take advantage of the healthy lineup at customs in Toronto to re-enter everything in the app and for some magical reason then it uploads properly. But why is it that not a single official at the border asks to see it? 

“Do you want to see my ArriveCAN receipt?” I asked the agent after he was done asking me about my trip, finger hovering keenly over the phone screen. 

“No,” he said, indicating with a wave of his head that it was time for me to move on. 

Yet when you finally do get your official receipt from the system, it reiterates that you must both show it before boarding your flight and “present it to the Canada Border Services Officer upon arrival in Canada.” Except nobody wants to see it. 

But, you scream! I’ve seen stories! On the news! People forced to quarantine for two weeks because they didn’t use the app properly! 

One of the first things you hear in law school is that ignorance of the law is no excuse for violating. If the government makes an app mandatory, as it does with ArriveCAN, then you can legally be punished for not having it or using it properly, even if you had no clue about it one bit. Yes, this applies to situations where the government doesn’t make a huge amount of effort to publicize this mandatory requirement, as is also the case with ArriveCAN. And it applies to people who do not own smartphones or aren’t especially savvy or don’t have roaming data on their cellphone plan. 

It’s your fault for not doing it right, even if nobody ever tells you to do it. So I will dutifully continue to fill out all the fields and submit all my information knowing perfectly well it’s entirely pointless just in case someone decides to enforce the rules. It’s maddening. 

Something else: When you get randomly selected at the airport with a lovely pink sticker on your passport for a PCR test (even though you literally just had to show a negative PCR test result to board the flight you got off of), nobody bothers to explain what you must do while you wait for your test results. There are rules about it. But the people administering the test don’t tell you. They just stick that Qtip up your snout, take your contact info and let you go. A few days later you get your results as well as information on the second appointment nobody said you needed to perform the follow-up test with the kit nobody gave you. 

But that’s not the worst. The worst is the COVID Alert app developed and allegedly maintained by the federal government. I’ve had it on my phone since it became available, because I wanted to do my part to help with contact tracing. I even encouraged others to use it in a column from September 2020. 

The COVID Alert app works (or so they say) using Bluetooth. When someone tests positive they’re supposed to get a key to enter in their app. Everyone whose phone spends 15 minutes or more within Bluetooth range of the phone of someone who has entered such a key in their app gets notified that they’ve been exposed to a positive case. 

According to David Akin, only 6.7 million Canadian smartphones have it downloaded and most of us don’t bother using it. Sure, it works anyway (or so they repeat), in the background. But if it alerts you and you ignore it, then you might as well not have it. 

That’s what happened to me. I spent well over a year never hearing from the app until December 21, 2021 when it reminded me of its presence. 

An alert! Egad! I’ve been exposed to a COVID-positive case! Do I need to panic? 

Pfft. Not at all, and I’ll tell you why: Because I got this alert right after receiving my second negative PCR test in five days and — critically — after spending roughly zero minutes near anyone except for my kids and physically distanced from one friend, and none of my kids nor that particular friend has or had COVID at any point. Let’s just say I’m not going to take this app seriously now. 

Twenty years after the attacks of September 11 we still haven’t figured out that removing our shoes at security — in order to go stand in a full-body scanner that would pick up suspicious things like explosives in our shoes — because once one bad person who’s been rotting in jail ever since tried to light up his sneakers with a match is nothing but security theatre. And we’re doing it again with “security” measures meant to keep us from spreading coronavirus but that are in fact designed to do nothing whatsoever. 

At this point I am almost less worried about the health effects of COVID-19 than I am about its impact on our collective ability to tell safety and absurd theatre apart.