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Airline security, a no-win situation

By Dr. Michael S. Brown
web posted February 18, 2002

The 9-11 disaster and subsequent shoe-bomber fiasco have triggered a frantic campaign to tighten airline security. Major media players are doing their patriotic duty by minimizing the unfortunate side effects, but personal horror stories are circulating by word of mouth and propagating freely on the Internet .

It seems that everyone has a tale to tell about flights being delayed by stupid errors, inept personnel and personality conflicts. Others, especially attractive women, tell of embarrassing and inappropriate searches. I have been waiting for a chance to gather some first hand information. A trip from Portland to Mexico and back last week convinced me that we are facing a no-win situation.

A member of the National Guard patrols the Southwest Airlines ticket counter area at BWI Airport after a potential security breech occured at the Southwest baggage screening area at Terminal B February 7
A member of the National Guard patrols the Southwest Airlines ticket counter area at BWI Airport after a potential security breech occured at the Southwest baggage screening area at Terminal B February 7

My wife and I arrived at Portland International Airport three hours before our flight, wearing as little metal as possible, and breezed through the magnetometers without a second glance from anyone. Standing nearby were three middle-aged National Guardsmen in battle dress carrying holstered Beretta pistols. There was nothing for them to do except stand there and look intimidating.

We developed a great deal of sympathy for them as we spent the next two boring hours waiting in the concourse. We were waved past the random screenings at the gate, which convinced us that we were a pretty innocent looking couple.

Only the fact that we found ourselves on a 737 with torturous dense-pack seating dampened our spirits.

In Houston, the National Guardpersons were a younger group, and more diverse in gender and race. They did not look grim, like the Portlanders, just bored and tired. In an attempt to make them appear more formidable, they had been issued M16's, which were slung on their backs.

Neither group appeared to be contributing anything other than acting as a symbol of national resolve. Standing out in the open in their ill-suited woodland camo, they would be easy targets for any terrorists wishing to repeat the bloody Rome and Vienna airport attacks of 1985. As George C. Scott said in the movie "Patton" it would be "a hell of a waste of fine infantry."

Leaving Houston for Mexico, we again boarded without a search of our persons or carry-on baggage. On the return flight, it appeared that we might finally have our bags searched for the first time by industrious Mexican women who were performing hand searches of checked baggage at the ticket counter. But once again we were waved past the search tables and the subsequent search at the gate.

Arriving in Houston with only an hour to make our connecting flight home, we passed quickly through Immigration, picked up our checked bags and presented ourselves to the Customs inspector. We looked so innocent that he literally laughed as he waved us through.

Things suddenly changed when we had to pass through the checkpoint before boarding. We had apparently morphed into terror suspects. Although we were still carrying no metal, a serious fellow spent a couple of minutes with a wand hunting politely for metallic traces without ever touching me. I was actually somewhat impressed, until I looked back at my wife, who appeared to be receiving a free massage. My screener had offered no such service.

Her security guy apparently believed strongly in the laying on of hands, although he called a female screener over to perform the groping of the breasts ceremony while he watched. No, she was not wearing a metal underwire bra. I believe this is simply a popular pagan ritual in Houston.

Since Texas women are often armed, the rite is always performed after the woman passes cleanly through the magnetometer to avoid casualties among the screeners.

My wife was again pulled aside at the gate for a check of her sneakers, which had not previously drawn any attention. She speculated that perhaps a sunburned Northwesterner desperately in need of a Starbucks visit looked out of place in Houston.

Arriving home, we discovered that her suitcase, filled mostly with dirty laundry, had been hand searched somewhere along the way. My suitcase, which contained all sorts of odd photo and electronic gear that would appear suspicious on an x-ray, was unopened.

Reflecting on the comical nature of our current airline security system, I can only conclude that the cause is hopeless. There will never be enough trained personnel to perform truly professional searches on each passenger and each piece of luggage. A portion of the screeners will always abuse their authority.

Even if enough smart, dedicated people could somehow be found to do such a tedious job, the delays, expense and personal embarrassment would discourage air travel to such a degree that the ailing airline industry would finally collapse.

Even before 9-11, air travelers were becoming disgruntled. They were being packed like sardines into ever-smaller seats, served food that would have been unthinkable a decade ago, and subjected to assorted delays, cancellations and inconvenience. It is easy to understand why the additional hardship and fear caused such a drastic decline in air travel.

As long as the terrorists are still functioning, they will choose the time, place and nature of the attacks. They can easily evade security measures designed to prevent a repeat of their previous attacks. Money spent on these efforts is in many respects wasted.

Being treated like a prison inmate is bad enough even when justified, but it is being done haphazardly to provide the appearance of greater safety. People are not stupid. Millions will continue to shun air travel until the situation improves.

In this arena the terrorists are winning. They are making us dance to their tune. It doesn't take much imagination to envision them laughing hysterically and planning the next phase. One can only pray that it does not involve rectal concealment of plastic explosives. There is only one kind of search that would be effective and that is too horrible to contemplate.

Dr. Michael S. Brown is an optometrist and member of Doctors for Sensible Gun Laws, www.dsgl.org. He may be reached at rkba2000@yahoo.com.

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