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Jewish World Review Sept. 7, 1999 /29 Elul, 5759

Bob Greene

Bob Greene
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Once upon a time, in an
airport close to you . . . --
THE INCONVENIENCE -- and that's way too mild a word for what happened -- was so severe last week, when some 6,000 travelers were evacuated from the United Airlines terminal at O'Hare International Airport, that officials are already asking themselves what can be done so this won't take place again.

The next time a person bursts past security checkpoints and disappears into the airport -- or when a security guard reports seeing something like this happen -- how can airline and airport officials keep things safe without disrupting the lives of so many travelers? If a person is reported to be loose in the vicinity of the boarding gates, how can the police try to apprehend him without snarling travel not only in Chicago, but all across the country as flights are canceled while the manhunt goes on?

For the answer, we should probably look back in recent history. How was a situation like this handled, say, 30 years ago? When a person was reported to have walked right past security checkpoints and blended into the other passengers, how did authorities deal with the crisis?

Oh. That's right. They didn't.

Because, before the early 1970s, there were no security checkpoints at U.S. airports. You simply walked into the airport, strolled down the corridor to your gate, gave your ticket to the gate agent and got on your plane.

But what if you weren't a passenger? And what if you weren't at the airport to pick up a friend or family member? What if you were just some person wandering around -- with who-knows-what on your mind?

Didn't matter. You had free run of the airport whoever you were.

This stopped after some planes were hijacked; the federal government stepped in to put security stations at the mouth of every corridor leading to an active gate. And lost in the recent confusion at O'Hare was the idea that if what happened last week had happened in 1970 or before, the reaction of airport and law-enforcement officials would have been no reaction at all.

Some guy just went right down to the gate, officer! We have no idea who he is!

Yeah? So? That's what people do at airports.

Or at least that is what they used to do. We might as well admit it to ourselves: All the electronic security equipment, all the metal- and explosives-detectors, all the security training in the world is not going to replace what we have lost. Which, in a word, is trust.

It sounds almost quaint: The reason that security barriers were not in place at airports from the beginning of commercial flight until the early '70s was that, essentially, we trusted our fellow men and women.

What a bizarre notion.

It's the same reason that, before 1982, when you bought a bottle of non-prescription pills at the drugstore, you unscrewed the cap and poured a tablet or two into your hand and washed it down with water. Didn't seem odd at all. Then came the Tylenol murders, in which someone placed cyanide in over-the-counter bottles, and now getting into a bottle of pills you buy at any American pharmacy can be as difficult as cracking a safe. Double-sealed, triple-sealed, wrapped in plastic, covered with coded tape. . . .

And government buildings -- so-called public buildings? They feel a lot less public now that the security guards await inside every entrance, now that every bag is subjected to a search either by machine or by hand. Your place of business, too -- that electronic ID card you carry? The one that opens the door to the part of the building where you work, the one that is intended to keep out anyone who isn't an employee there? What did your company do before security cards?

Nothing, in most businesses. If someone wanted to walk in -- someone who didn't belong there? Someone whose intentions were unknown? Some companies had a person sitting at a desk -- more of a helpful receptionist than a security guard. But many companies did not. What if a stranger showed up? Someone unknown, someone not on the payroll -- someone who hadn't been screened?

Good. Maybe the person would turn out to be a new customer.

At O'Hare, they're trying to come up with ways to make sure that what happened last week will never be repeated.

There's one way that would definitely work: Start trusting each other again.

Nah. Forget it. Too crazy an idea.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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