Be Careful What You Write
September 29, 2002
On September 1, 2002, I wrote a column critical of the way screening is carried out at U.S. airports ( "A U.S. Police State"). Since that time I have been on ten flights. On every one of those ten flights I have been "selected" for "random" searches by the same airline screeners I criticized. Surely this was a coincidence!
Most times I was only searched once. A few times I was searched twice. At one airport I was searched three times! First, when I checked in my bag at the ticket counter, I was "randomly" selected to have the bag searched. When I was allowed to leave that area and proceed to the security checkpoint, I was again "randomly" searched. Glad that it was all over, I read a book at the gate until boarding began. As I got to the final barrier to boarding my flight, the gate check where you show your boarding pass, I was again "randomly selected."
Here’s how the gate check works. (I hadn’t noticed the details before, but since this harassment began, I have been watching the process very carefully.) The gate agent places the boarding pass under a scanner. If everything is OK (which it is 95% of the time), a green light comes on at their console. They hand you back your boarding pass and you get on the plane. However, if you are "randomly selected" to be searched, a red light goes on.
After about the fifth time I was "randomly selected" for this honor, I complained about the frequency of my selection. I told the supervisor that I thought they should spread it around a little, particularly to the Arabs. I mentioned that I have observed the boarding of thousands of passengers over the past few months. Of the several hundred I have observed being searched, not one was an Arab. In fact, I even observed the red light go on at the gate agent’s console on two occasions when Arabs were boarding (presumably true random selections), and the Arab passengers were waved through!
I asked why small children and grandmothers were being searched when we know the profile of the terrorists. A lady screener standing next to supervisor spoke up, "We have to make it look good. It gives the passengers confidence that we’re doing our jobs." The supervisor shot her a look that clearly said, "Shut your mouth and get back to work," and she hurriedly left without another word.
Then the supervisor said something that surprised me. I wasn’t surprised by what he said, but I was surprised by his candor. He asked, "Do you have a connecting flight at your destination?" When I replied that I did, he said, "You can expect to be searched there as well." He said that I had been "flagged" by the system, but he didn’t know why. I asked if that meant just on this trip or forever, but he didn’t know. In the light of my experiences on flights since then, apparently I’ve been flagged forever.
What does this mean for the safety of the U.S. flying public? For whatever reason, I have become Public Enemy Number One. The reason I have been flagged doesn’t matter. Perhaps it is simply incompetence (there’s surely enough of that to go around at the Transportation Safety Administration). Perhaps its because one of my 50,000 plus subscribers works for the TSA and flagged me out of spite. What matters is that precious resources are being used searching me and other patriotic Americans while Mohammed and Abdullah continue to board planes with impunity in order to preserve political correctness.
Do you feel safer since President Bush signed the Aviation and Transportation Security Law last November? I suspect not, especially if you have observed the actions of airport screeners as I have. For instance, when I flew into Palm Beach International Airport last night, I stood for a few minutes watching the thirty federal screeners manning four machines where they check carry-on bags. That’s right - thirty people for four machines, and that doesn’t count the local law enforcement personnel. At least half of the screeners were standing around chatting with one another.
Most of you have read or seen the story on TV about the fourteen reporters sent by the New York Daily News to fourteen different U.S. airports, including the airports used by the 9/11 hijackers. The reporters carried box cutters, razor knives, and pepper spray onto airplanes. The response from airport security executives? They didn’t say, "Wow, we screwed up! We’re going to tighten up procedures right away." They told the newspaper, "We should arrest your people for carrying those dangerous items on board."
John Schmidt, one of our columnists, told me a fascinating story of his experience at the Fort Lauderdale airport. Screeners there found a small set of fingernail clippers in his kitbag. The clippers contained a tiny nail file with a dull point, which they broke off before allowing him to proceed. Thirty feet past the check point John found a store that sold the same fingernail clippers. When his wife, Peggy, pointed out that they could buy the clippers inside the supposedly secure area and take them on the plane, the screener just shrugged as if to say, "I don’t make these stupid rules, I just enforce them."
"All right," you say, "there’s definitely a problem. What’s the answer?" I’m glad you asked. Let me ask you a question in return. What are the only two airlines that have never experienced a hijacking? They are El Al (Israel’s national airline) and Swiss Air. And what do these two airlines have in common? They are the only airlines in the world that have armed air marshals on every flight. So the first part of the answer is to take most of the billions that are being wasted on airport screening, and put the money into something that has been proven for decades to work - airline security in the form of armed personnel on every U.S. flight.
The second part of the answer is to adopt a different attitude toward airline security. I watched an interview a few months ago with an El Al security executive. He said, "You Americans look for things. We watch for people." Are you listening, Norman Mineta? Mr. Mineta, an American of Japanese decent, was so affected by the treatment of Japanese in the United States that he refuses to even consider what every American recognizes - we must use profiling to prevent airline terrorism. If Mineta’s emotional state keeps him from doing his job, then he has no business being the Secretary of the Department of Transportation.
Every one of the nineteen 9/11 terrorists fit a certain profile. Every minute we spend harassing children, grandmothers, breast-feeding mothers, Medal of Honor winners, and disabled citizens is time that could be spent profiling and catching terrorists. What mother would take her infant on a plane she was about to destroy? (Screeners recently made a mother drink breast milk she was carrying for her baby.) And what elderly hero who won the Medal of Honor defending his country would attack it? (They told this gentleman they would have to confiscate his Medal of Honor because it had a half-inch pin attached to it.)
Airport screeners even wasted time searching Al Gore and making him remove his $500 shoes. While it made for a nice publicity stunt, and lots of screeners got their pictures taken, it did nothing to make us safer. While I believe Al the Bore is capable of many things, hijacking an airliner is not one of them.
The only answer to the airport security problem is something I believe the federal government is incapable of - common sense. In the aftermath of 9/11, Bush should have gotten together a committee of ten regular Americans. The only qualification would have been that five people that knew them well would say, "They use common sense in their daily lives." They could have come up with much better solutions than the current inefficient, multi-billion dollar new federal agency. That sucking sound you hear is billions of your tax dollars flying into a black hole that can never accomplish what the American people need and deserve - safe air travel.
EDITOR’S COMMENT. When I sent this article to our Editorial Board, I received the following comment from veteran news analyst Mary Mostert:
"Great article. By the way, not only is it stupid to harass elderly, handicapped people, it is dangerous. My daughter’s mother-in-law, age 90, who is almost blind and needs a cane to walk was "selected" for security reasons as a possible terrorist. She had her cane in one hand and was leaning on her grandson’s arm for guidance, since she can’t see. She was told to give up her cane for screening, then her grandson was told he had to step away from her. Then she was told to take off her shoes, but was not given a chair. She leaned over to take off her shoes and fell on her head. None of her the family was allowed to help her. She was on the other side of the screening - and the "security" guards just let her lie there. When the family was finally allowed to help her up, her head was bleeding and they took her to the emergency room. Everyone missed the flight, and she stayed in the hospital for a week. She’s still not able to get around like she did before she was mistaken for an Arab terrorist.
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