- The Washington Times - Monday, September 24, 2001

Thoughts on security at airports: It is not quite a joke, but not much better. A few months back, I smuggled a sharp knife, indistinguishable from a hunting knife, onto an airliner at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. I didn't mean to do it. The knife was my scuba knife, in a sheath inserted into a shoulder strap of my BC the sort of life-jacket-looking thing that divers wear.
I just forgot it was there. Six-inch blade, sharp point. Went right through X-ray. I don't know why. Security is by no means worthless. Some degree of luck (in my case), sophistication and willingness to risk being caught are needed to get a weapon past security. Unfortunately, there is a lot of sophistication in the world.
Plastic knives exist that are quite good enough for cutting throats or stabbing flight attendants. Passengers are not body searched. I've seen a lot of security folk because I travel a lot. They are not exactly FBI agents. They look to be not minimum-wage people, but not too far from it. Some clearly have not been too bright.
The only guy I have talked to who was involved in the business said that turnover was high. Not good. Further, he said, too many people of inadequately investigated backgrounds have access to aircraft: cleaning crews, maintenance people, and the like. Leaving a knife in the seatback pouch of a particular seat would seem to be easy. Certainly it is possible to do better, provided you are willing to pay the price.
During one of the wars in the Middle East, I flew to Israel on El Al, the Israeli airline that was the only line going at the time. The Israelis, to my complete lack of surprise, took security seriously. The agents were alert, really interested in what they were doing and thorough. They were also intrusive and took a very long time to search people.
For example, they probed my toothpaste with a wire, looked very carefully at ballpoint pens, and in general inspected everything I was carrying. I remember a little old Hasidic man clutching a round bundle of newspaper. "This, my cheese, is," he said. It indeed his cheese was, as the security people made sure by slicing it into many pieces. This wasn't crazy: Molding cheese around plastic explosives isn't hard. Nobody objected. After all, they were going to be on the aircraft, and everyone knew that there were plenty of people who would have liked to bring it down.
But would Americans put up with hours of preflight searching? And with an attitude from the security folk that wouldn't sit well with people who are intensely sensitive about their rights?
The Israelis weren't precisely discourteous. They were, however, deadly earnest. Their view was clearly that everyone was a terrorist until proved innocent. I'd call them politely aggressive. Nobody was going to slide. If they wanted to take every cigarette out of a pack and look at it, which I think they did, they were going to do it. If you didn't like it, you weren't going to fly.
They were obviously trained and smart, not people who just needed a job. They looked you right in the eyes, didn't smile, impressed me as looking for any facial tremor or averting of gaze. We weren't passengers to them. We were suspects. Which suited me just fine. I didn't want to be an oil slick on the Atlantic.
The approach works. So far as I know, El Al hasn't lost a plane. But are Americans going to put up with that? Right now, maybe, and perhaps for a few months after the current fracas settles down, or appears to have settled down. Then we would start to complain.
Getting that grade of security agent would cost money. It's hard to stay alert when bored. There are other approaches. Cops I've talked to (meaning all of three) all suggested the same thing: better security at the gates, locks on the cockpit door, and require that pilots be armed and trained in shooting.
The FBI's pistol course at Quantico Marine Corps Base was mentioned. The anti-gun lobbies would throw a fit at the idea because it wouldn't look good (it would look fine to me). I note, however, that when a man with a boxcutter fights a man with a 9mm, it ain't much of a fight. As best I can guess, about 7,000 people would still be alive today if the pilots had been carrying guns, and the doors had been locked.
Political correctness can carry a high price.

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