Prohibited in carry-on luggage are knives of any length or description, including catering cutlery; cutting instruments of any kind, including carpet knives, box-cutters and other folding retractable blades, regardless of blade length or composition. This includes those less than four inches in length, regardless of whether they are metallic or non-metallic items such as ice picks, straight razors, elongated scissors and knitting needles.

—American Airlines Travel Advisory

At 10:30 a.m. in Terminal 2 of the Burbank airport, I watch a tall, slender black man pull at his tightly braided hair while a woman in a black jacket marked “security” sorts through his luggage. Mechanically, lackadaisically, her waistband loaded down with little machines, she pulls each article of clothing into the air, holds it up as though it were a freshly killed bird and runs a hand-held metal detector over its surface. Satisfied, she drops each piece on a metal table off to one side, and when the bag is empty, picks up the pile of scanned clothing in one hand and stuffs it all back in. “Oh, man,” the agitated man says to her, “please please please just fold it when you put it back in!” A few minutes later, the man speeds by me on the way to his gate, late for his plane.

Me, I’ve got time to kill: A mere half-hour after arriving at the airport, I’m sitting at gate A-1, waiting to board Southwest flight 574 to Oakland and trying to turn off my laptop computer, which froze up when I turned it on at the security gate. The battery won’t come loose, so I search my purse for a sharp implement. And I find one: my Swiss Army Camper, with its nail file, tiny scissors and three gleaming blades, still tucked away in the zippered pouch on the side of my shoulder bag. As the first of my fellow passengers queue up, clutching their boarding passes and picture IDs, I sit in full view of law enforcement prying off a computer battery with an inch-long steel blade. Nobody even looks at me funny.

“It’s safer to fly than it ever has been,” a friend told me the night before my trip. Safe, because we know that no more men with dark eyes and funny accents will be taking out flight attendants and flying planes into architectural landmarks. Safe, because we’ve battened down the cockpit hatches and galvanized the flying public. Safe, because a few creepily histrionic pilots have delivered speeches to their passengers, reminding them to sack hijackers like ill-fated quarterbacks, and asking each to greet his or her neighbor as if confined to the pews of an Agape service. But while impenetrable cockpits and revved jocks in the cabin might have defeated the suicide bombers on September 11, such measures will never foil another criminal on an airplane. We are only prepared for something that has already happened.

On the way home, I move slowly through the line at Oakland’s airport security, noting signs that forbid knives of any kind in carry-on luggage. Aware of my knife, I consider handing it over. Instead, I send my bags through the machine. The security attendant takes my bag and asks me to wait. “You have a scissors,” she informs me. I pull out a makeup bag, in which I keep a tweezers in the shape of a scissors. She examines them. She puts them back. She sends me on my way. The man next to me, who has just had a veritable arsenal of nail-care artillery confiscated, launches a meek complaint: “Do I get them back when I come through again?” I am relieved to see that he is old, and a businessman, and white.

White, too, was the young man in Philadelphia who was banned from flying United after he passed through the security gate reading an Edward Abbey book. I’d assumed it was racism that made the black man in Burbank seem suspicious to security, but I’m thinking that it’s sexism that makes me seem so innocent, as if a woman is too delicate to pose a threat to national security. (Does nobody remember Squeaky Fromme?) Once on the plane, my imagination hums with stunts. I remember Onel De Guzman, creator of the “ILOVEYOU” Microsoft Outlook–dependent virus, who exploited his media moment to call attention to the exorbitant hourly rates for Internet access in the Philippines. I toy with the notion of brandishing my tiny sword in the aisle long enough to make a quick statement against our squandering of natural resources in guzzling SUVs, or the disruption of whale habitats with naval sonar exercises. I fantasize about shouting “STOP THE BOMBING!” at the top of my lungs against a backdrop that would secure me a spot on the nightly news. I wonder if I’d do jail time, or whether the other passengers would kill me first.

But mostly, I sit in my seat and think about whether, for all our automated solutions and systematic assumptions and three-hours-ahead check-in times, we’re that much safer than we ever were. Our airport gates are still manned by security personnel who lack the imagination to suspect that a weapon could be planted on, or even wielded by, a woman. On September 10, none of us could fathom that men armed with box-cutters would sacrifice their own lives to bomb buildings with commercial jets. We are threatened by white powders and Arab faces, but the real danger lies in the things we haven’t thought of. Yet.

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