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Bergeson column: Air puffs at the airport make America the world's laughing stock

Passing through the Orwellian world of airport security just got more surreal. Last weekend, in addition to the familiar humiliation of taking off my boots and belt, I had to pass through something called a "General Electric Entry Scanner."

The General Electric Entry Scanner, plastered with the swirly GE logo, looks like a space-age phone booth, except it has two doors, both made of Plexiglas.

As if you were going through a car wash, you enter the first door when the light turns green. You pull forward until your feet are on the two little footmarks on the floor. The light turns red. You stop.

The door closes behind you. A computerized voice says, "air pumps prepared to activate."

If I hadn't seen people come out the other side, I would have wondered if I was about to be teleported to another century.

But no, after I stood in the booth for about 15 seconds, the air guns popped. I jumped, even though I knew what was coming. The woman before me had screamed as her dress blew up like Marilyn Monroe's.

After the air puffs blast your clothing, you stand for another 20 seconds or so, obeying the red light. When it turns green, the Plexiglas doors open and the computerized voice tells you to exit the booth.

I didn't dare ask the uniformed authorities what the air puffs were about, or why you had to wait 20 seconds to leave the booth. You don't mess with those people.

Later, a fellow passenger told me the air puff booth checks to see if you have any toxic chemicals on you.

You stand there for 20 seconds after the air puffs so the machine can figure out if your cologne qualifies as dangerous.

After surviving the air puffs, you still must pass through the metal detector. Then you rush to get your clothes back on, your laptop back in its case, and your change and keys back in your pockets before the plastic trays go over the end of the conveyor belt. It is an altogether frazzling experience.

As this goes on, an overhead voice announces sweetly for the 20th time, "The security threat level is orange. Please report any suspicious activity to the authorities."

Off to the side, an elderly grandmother who has been pulled aside for special frisking tries to pull herself together after the experience.

A large man in a uniform barks to the passengers waiting in the roped off line, "Keep your boarding passes out! You must have your boarding passes out!"

To their credit, nine out of 10 security personnel are polite. And the passengers, most of them obviously convinced that all the hocus pocus is keeping them safe, proceed through the checkpoints with bovine equanimity.

But really, is this silliness really necessary? Isn't it stupid to frisk grandmothers? Does anybody really think those orange alerts mean anything?

Of the hundreds of millions of air passengers per year who fly, how many have ever tried to bring poison powder on the plane? Is it worth shooting us with air puffs that make us jump just to make sure some nut doesn't try?

"Well," a lot of people say, "if it keeps us safe..."

The "if it keeps us safe" argument, if taken to its logical conclusion, is going to turn this country into the laughing stock of the world -- if it hasn't already.

Here we are, the most prosperous, most powerful nation on earth, and we've let a band of insane ruffians who got lucky seven years ago frighten us into submitting like cows to ludicrous humiliations in the name of safety.

Orange alerts. Frisking of grandmothers. Dress-lifting air poofs.

If it is all just a show to convince us we are safe, it fails. After all, doesn't the FBI (we hope) do a much better job of stopping terrorists than the airport grandma friskers?

Plus, there's something troubling to me about uniformed men and women barking out orders to a long line of innocent people dragging their suitcases.

Even if -- especially if -- the airport hocus pocus is just for show, it is making this country look weak and scared.

At the very least, it is time to tell General Electric where to stick their Air Puff Booths.