Years ago, the biggest question you'd get while flying was "coffee or tea?" Now it's "naked body scan or aggressive pat-down?" Behind that dilemma is the real choice. It's the one too many Americans have been unwilling to face: Should we "profile" - i.e., concentrate our security efforts on the individuals more likely to pose a threat? Or do we continue with the absurd fiction that every man, woman and child stands an equal chance of being a terrorist?
There's always a tension between the need for freedom and the desire for security, but the stepped-up security measures have triggered outrage. Obviously, the policy pendulum has swung too far, encroaching too much on personal freedoms.
Americans have reached their limit. It's about time. The system we have under the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is unreasonably intrusive and completely unacceptable.
We're learning the hard way what numerous European governments learned years ago as they worked to reduce the threat of terrorism. When more attacks occurred in the 1970s, they reacted as we have, with government employees handling security through a government agency. When that didn't work, they changed tactics. Countries such as Belgium, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom turned to private companies to handle security, with government providing strict oversight.
Several other countries followed suit in the 1980s and '90s. The result of this public-private model: Better security and greater public satisfaction.
These countries now have a "risk-based" approach to security. That's what Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano says we have through TSA. It's not.
The success of the European private security approach has attracted the attention of Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican. He has written many of the biggest U.S. airports, urging them to stop using the TSA and contract instead with private companies for security.
Can't be done, you say? At least one major airport, San Francisco International, is already operating under such a system. The fact is, we are not stuck with the TSA model. We can and should do better.
We need to start shifting to a public-private model. That means, first of all, ditching the body scanners. It's not a question, as some have suggested, of whether the scans are anonymous. Either way, they show that we are not screening properly for those who pose the greatest threat to airline security.
How do we do this? Sort passengers into three groups. "Low-risk" ones we know plenty about - those with federal security clearance, for example, or a biometric ID card. "Ordinary" ones are next - mostly occasional fliers and leisure travelers. Last but not least, we must watch for "high-risk" ones we either know nothing about or who raise red flags.
Each group would receive a different level of screening. The "low-risk" ones would get something like what was in place before Sept. 11, 2001. The "ordinary" passengers would go through the system put into place right after that infamous attack. Those classified as "high risk" would be questioned closely and undergo a more rigorous security check. As an added layer of security, members of the first two groups would be subject to random checks that would be more thorough.
There's no way that such a system could be worse than what we have now, with its ludicrous restrictions on "profiling." We do ourselves no favors by acting as if, say, a small child from Missouri or a nun from Iowa is as likely to be a terrorist as someone from Yemen. Certain homegrown terrorists are possible, yes, but they would fall into the high-risk group.
Besides, we're already profiling. Pilots, flight attendants, Cabinet secretaries, top congressional leaders and other senior officials are exempt from the new screening procedures. If all pose an equal threat, why the free pass for these individuals?
It's time to acknowledge that the TSA emperor is as naked as the offensive body scans being inflicting on every grandmother who flies. Trash the scanners, fire the TSA and stop pretending everyone's an equal threat. It's a costly lie.
Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).
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