Archive for Sunday, September 8, 2002

Safety worth some inconvenience

September 8, 2002


Look, I'm happy to take off my shoes if that's what is required.

If somebody wants to paw through my underwear, swab chemicals on my briefcase or squeeze private regions of my body, I'm fine with that, too. Hell, if my 70-something aunt with the bad hip objects to any of the above on the grounds that she hardly fits anyone's profile of a terrorist, I'm perfectly willing to hold her down until she has been well and thoroughly frisked.

Just so long as all that ensures that I can fly safely, secure in the knowledge that no one has been allowed to carry weapons aboard the aircraft. Is that too much to ask?

Apparently, yes. That's the unavoidable conclusion now that a team of reporters from the New York Daily News has managed, for the second time in a year, to carry contraband items through airport security. The reporters traveled over Labor Day weekend on one-way tickets supposedly a security red flag. They took 14 flights from 11 airports, including those through which terrorists traveled last year. The reporters never tried to evade security checkpoints and made no attempt to hide the banned items, other than putting them in carry-on bags. And, even though the bags were X-rayed and some were hand-searched, in no instance did security find the pepper spray, razor knives and box cutters packed inside.

You know the part that scares me? Not just that somebody managed to get weapons through security, but that journalists did. Not to dis my own, but we members of the Fourth Estate aren't exactly known for our technical savvy and mechanical know-how. We're the kind of folks who keep Jiffy Lube in business. If a bunch of English majors can breach airline security, anybody can.

And that's a disquieting thought.

Remember those signs you used to see at security checkpoints warning you that the airport in Mugwump, Africa, or Cgyzny, Eastern Europe, did not meet U.S. safety standards? You shook your head, feeling vaguely sorry for the poor devils in those backwater places. Meanwhile, your security routine consisted of being waved through a metal detector and politely asked if anyone had given you a bomb to carry onboard.

Where airline safety is concerned, the events of last Sept. 11 were supposed to have done two things: end our smugness and toughen our security. A year later, it seems increasingly clear that while the former may have happened, the latter certainly did not. We've been given the illusion of increased security without the actual fact of it.

I made several calls, trying to get someone from the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington to explain this to me. No one ever picked up the phone. Apparently, the FAA was not at home.

You think I'm making that up. I only wish I were.

Hey, I won't pretend I'm an expert in airline security; I was an English major, after all. But I am absolutely an expert in the field of Not Wanting To Become Human Confetti While Trying To Get To Spokane. And in my considered opinion, the measures taken to beef up airport security have proven woefully inadequate.

In the first hot days after Sept. 11, there was lots of talk that U.S. carriers should emulate El Al, Israel's state airline, which thoroughly interrogates ever flier, hand searches every bag, stations air marshals on every flight. El Al security procedures are rigorous, time-consuming, invasive ... and effective. No one has hijacked an Israeli plane in over a quarter century.

The idea of learning from the Israelis seems to have been quietly dropped amid general consensus that Americans would never stand still for that sort of inconvenience. Inconvenience being a mortal sin in a drive-through nation.

But you know something? It's not exactly a barrel of laughs standing there in your socks being groped by some stranger, either. You put up with it because you think you're getting something out of it. Meaning security not its illusion.

A year ago, we said this nation had been fundamentally changed. If that was truly the case, then the question of what to do to ensure air safety should be a no-brainer.

Inconvenience me, PLEASE.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

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