January 6, 2002
Enormous resources have been expended since September 11 to overhaul airport security in a desperate attempt to avert another catastrophe. The public rose to the occasion, eager to accept long lines, billions of dollars of appropriations—whatever it would take to ensure that airplanes aren't used as weapons of mass destruction ever again.
Sadly, the burdensome new passenger screening procedures put in place by the Transportation Department are nothing but a costly charade. My wife and I have flown frequently since that day of infamy and we have seen this firsthand. The new rules and procedures at security checkpoints are missing the real threats and are causing undue inconvenience to air travelers.
To begin to consider airport security, we must realize that the events of September 11 were not enabled by security breaches. The terrorist hijackers passed through security checkpoints carrying knives under 4 inches in length, which to that point were not restricted. When it comes down to it, their appalling plans were enabled by what we now know was inappropriate submissiveness on the part of aircrew and passengers.
No aircrew will ever again surrender their craft to hijackers wielding edged weapons. But that has not stopped a hysterical campaign to remove from the hands of passengers anything that could remotely be construed as a knife. A few months ago, I walked onto planes with a serrated 3½-inch pocketknife. After September 11, I watched in disbelief as the security screeners triumphantly removed a tiny file from my fingernail clippers, and confiscated a small folding pliers on my key chain. These token proceedings may reassure a few paranoid and shortsighted travelers, but they do nothing to increase our security.
It is still trivial to get edged weapons onto planes. Sharpened keys are just as lethal as box cutters, but pass right under the noses of inspectors. Fiberglass knives the size of meat cleavers can be sewn into luggage and make it through security with near certainty. Carefully crafted metal blades can be concealed in laptops and cell phones to pass invisibly through X-ray scanners. In short, anyone who wants to board a plane with edged weapons can do so with minimal effort. But that doesn't matter, because no calculating terrorist will ever again rely on edged weapons to commit a hijacking.
Serious security lapses have been frequently publicized and show that screening quality does warrant corrective action. But terrorists have too many other sure-fire ways of achieving their goals. They don't have to take risks smuggling things through passenger security. Forget about bombs concealed in shoes (or more personal regions). The next act of terrorism involving airlines will probably be a bomb placed in checked baggage, and we know that our chances of detecting that bomb are less than 10 percent—no matter how frequently we ask passengers whether they packed their own bags.
These realities haven't dissuaded security bureaucrats from instituting utterly asinine screening procedures. My wife, a young, female, American citizen, checks in with both an active military ID and an IATAN (airline travel agent network) card. Yet every time she has flown since September 11 she has been selected to undergo every possible screening procedure. On one flight from Logan to London, with many passengers connecting to Bahrain, she watched a line of young, male Arabs on foreign passports clear security unchallenged, with one checking a particularly suspicious large cardboard box. Meanwhile, she was picked to haul her suitcase to the other end of the terminal to undergo interrogation while her clothing was picked through piece by piece. How many female American travel agents with spouses on active duty in the armed forces could possibly pose a terrorist threat?
Our limited security resources are being woefully misdirected. If a political fear of “profiling” is keeping us from scrutinizing young Arab men—just like those who have declared an open war of terrorism upon us—then we haven't learned the lessons of September 11. Even the security people seem to have come to the realization that their job is just a show. When they open my wife's carry-ons for hand searching they no longer rummage for the fingernail clippers, but choose instead to haphazardly unfold and refold a few pieces of underwear until it seems she has been sufficiently inconvenienced.
Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta admits that our current race- and citizenship-blind computer profiling system would have failed to catch even a single one of the September 11 hijackers. We can't afford to continue this charade. Our single most valuable security tool is the knowledge that terrorists will most likely be Arab men. We must intelligently profile passengers, looking for those who have taken oaths to martyr themselves killing Americans. If we concentrated on passengers that fit the profile of a terrorist, we could significantly increase our chances of stopping real terrorists. We must also focus our resources, not on creating long lines in the terminals, but on screening checked baggage, where the next threat will slip through.
The farcical gantlet air travelers are being forced to run to board a plane makes a mockery of reason. This sham may reassure a few travelers now, but the general public will not be impressed for long. The nonsensical screening procedures that have been introduced in the name of increased security do not, in fact, increase security. It may take another terrorist act to prove just how wasteful and misdirected these measures are. I hope we can come to our senses before then.
Lieutenant, U.S. Air Force
Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass.