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Does airline security hurt your feelings?

By Brad Keena
web posted January 21, 2002

Last week, nine airport security screeners filed a federal lawsuit claiming a new law that bars non-citizens from becoming federal airport screeners is discriminatory and unconstitutional. Of the 28,000 men and women currently employed to screen passengers at the nation's airports, about 20 percent would lose their jobs because they are not U.S. citizens. Truth is a thin line that often travels between opposing presuppositions.

Airline securityFor example, Americans have demonstrated a preference for placing the role public safety exclusively in the hands of fellow citizens. But few are prepared to indict legal non-citizens as an inherently untrustworthy or criminal class of society. People like the idea of thorough screening of those who transit our gateways. At the same time, people hate the long lines and some resent the imposition of searches on themselves when the real suspects are likely to be the persons in front or in back of them.

The problem with all of this is such screenings had little to do with the fatal hijackings of September 11. Before that date, the theory was that passengers should cooperate with hijackers, assuming they wanted safe travel to some destination in exchange for the return of the plane and passengers.

After September 11, the traveling public no longer assumes hijackers intend to stay alive. Now when we board a plane, all the big guys find each other with knowing looks that say, "You and I know what to do if someone tries something."

Also last week, the new law required airlines to begin matching bags to passengers on domestic flights. If a passenger were to take one leg of an itinerary and then miss the connecting flight, his bag would somehow have to be removed from the flight if he's not on it. The problem, of course, is checked bags loaded on planes will not be screened nationwide until later this year under the new law, thanks to a scarcity of screening equipment.

Even then, the absence of available equipment will require many bags to be searched or screened by individuals. The nightmare of time wasted at airports has only just begun. Who knows, maybe a cottage industry will pop up offering rolling chairs with snacks and portable entertainment systems for weary passengers waiting in queue.

Still, one favorable aspect of the new law under the administration of John Magaw, the new Under Secretary of Transportation for Security, is the allowance of guns in the cockpit. Think of it this way: if you were faced with a choice between two airlines, one of which forbade pilots from carrying guns in the cockpit and the other which permitted its pilots to arm themselves, which airline would you choose? Many pilots are ex-military, having been well-trained in the use of small arms. [Which brings up the point that this is a lousy year to be a lobbyist for an anti-gun rights group.]

One other stipulation of the new law shows promise. It's the expansion of the federal air marshal program. However, I think the government should resist hiring thousands of new marshals. Instead, it seems to me that police officers from all over the country could be trained and deputized to serve as undercover marshals when they travel. They might even be paid a stipend and be allowed to fly free as they volunteer. Others could take a week out of the year to serve in a pool of trained officers from all over the country who sign up to help defend our skies. Maybe other honest citizens could be trained and certified to participate in the program.

One of the plaintiffs among the nine suing the federal government told reporters he "was deeply hurt" that the law bans non-citizens from serving as new federal screeners. Such comments are often designed to halt any debate about the issue at hand. The risk of "hurt feelings" is the small price society must pay as we rethink the business of securing our skies while entertaining a much-needed national dialogue over individual liberties versus personal security.

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