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9. On shoes and airport security: some thoughts

My day started at 3.30 am, and included three flights: from Copenhagen to Amsterdam, from Amsterdam to New York and from New York to Richmond, Virginia. There was a security check at every airport, but it was only on the New York — Richmond flight (a domestic US flight) that I was asked to remove my shoes. The reason? No one wants to be the person who gets that procedure changed.

But let’s backtrack a bit and talk about terrorism

After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the world of international air travel changed overnight. Security tightened measurably in most of the world’s airports, and especially in those in the USA. If I remember correctly, some time after the attacks, a suspected terrorist was caught trying to sneak some kind of blade on board a plane by some kind of hidden shoe mechanism.

It will probably go on like this for a long time

Why is it still necessary to remove one’s shoes when traveling inside the US, when it isn’t required to go from Amsterdam to New York? Why isn’t the TSA moving with the times, and dropping this policy? Many would applaud that decision, that’s certain. But not the right people. And that’s why nothing happens.

“Enough with this shoe nonsense! We can see that it doesn’t have an effect anyway, besides annoying the crap out of air travelers.”

And that’s because it’s so easy to use ad absurdum arguments that sound great, but are in reality false binaries.

“Would you save two minutes during your security check if the price is letting the terrorists take over our planes?”

Nobody wants to be the guy that lets the terrorists win. Nobody wants to take the fight that it would require to do something about a deeply entrenched tradition, that’s obeyed unquestioningly by most of us — if for nothing else, to avoid trouble. It’s simply not worth it for anyone to stick their neck out.

You probably have some airport shoes in your life

Maybe there’s a silly ruleset in your apartment complex that no one obeys, but no one wants to fight to actually get changed. Maybe there’s a member of your circle of friends who no one really likes anymore, but who isn’t disliked enough that anyone would go to the trouble to throw him out. And maybe you’ve been faking your orgasms from the beginning, but have come to the conclusion that you have too much heart to say something after all this time.

Someone has to do it, and that might be you

No one wants to rock the boat. Add to that how much harder it becomes to muster the necessary energy if the problem in question isn’t affecting you directly somehow. It’s also (usually) easier to defend the status quo than to defend making changes. Change is hard. It’s risky, and it can fail. Being the person to get up and say “Why is it we’re doing it this way? Can we do it some other way?” requires courage and a position of feeling safe and trusted, that we don’t all enjoy.

Written by

Director, The College of Extraordinary Experiences & Coach at McKinsey

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