Jewish World Review Jan. 14, 2002 / Rosh Chodesh Shevat, 5762
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- LIBERTY is threatened not so much by massive destruction as by minor erosion. Like when boarding an airplane. There should be few safer passengers than a Secret Service agent. But not in the case of Walied Shater, who was tossed off of an American Airlines flight Christmas Day.
Unfortunately, the dispute has degenerated into a typical "he said, she said" squabble. The captain and flight attendants almost certainly wouldn't have questioned Shater's credentials had he been a WASP. Indeed, the captain didn't bother looking over the Secret Service paperwork which he later criticized until the flight attendant complained about Shater.
However, Shater admits to becoming upset in response, which would put any crew on edge. He probably wouldn't have been ousted had he been less belligerent and his forms been in order. No one comes away looking very good. But it's a poor case for the government to sort out. Especially after Sept. 11, airline personnel should be allowed to decide who flies on their planes.
Still, people shouldn't be singled out for stupid reasons. When Shater first got off the plane before departure, the flight attendant rifled through his carry-on bag and found, horrors!, a book with "Arabic style print," according to American's incident report.
Shater was reading "The Crusades Through Arab Eyes" -- in English. Passenger Mark Pueschel says that it was this discovery that so upset the crew. Such a volume is unlikely reading for a suicide hijacker. Yet security personnel are now easily frightened.
On a recent flight from Hartford to Washington, I carried a canvas briefcase and medium-size backpack. The screener was uninterested in the former but wanted to look through the latter. She dumped out the contents, laboriously combed through the individual items, and asked me to open my computer disk drive (an impossible feat). She then took the backpack to rerun through the machine, or so she said.
But I looked over and saw a man, who later identified himself as a United Airlines supervisor, taking my backpack and saying that he would handle it. He came over and asked: "Are you a collector." I said, "hunh?" He said that I had some strange clippings in my backpack, on bioterrorism.
In fact, I had a file of articles, from leading newspapers, on pharmaceutical regulation, about which I was writing a policy paper. The subjects included Medicare benefits, CIPRO and patent protection, AIDS in the Third World, the World Trade Organization, and responses to bioterrorism.
The latter accounted for but a small part of the file, but apparently unnerved the screener, who must have been scanning my articles when not trying to open my disk drive. I told the supervisor that I was a policy analyst and journalist, and that I had materials on other subjects, including military conscription, about which I was also writing. I showed him my business cards for the Cato Institute and Copley News Service and offered to pull up the draft policy analysis on my computer.
But he brought over a state cop and then wandered off with my driver's license to call in my name. The trooper pulled me aside and said roughly: "A lot of the stuff that they do is chickens--t, but we have to go along."
Eventually, it became evident that I was not listed as a suspected bioterrorist. My more than half hour of standing around wouldn't have been so bad if it actually had made anyone more secure.
But I obviously wasn't going to beat the flight crew with my clippings. And I wasn't carrying any envelopes of white powder. Nor did United Airlines pay the slightest attention to my explanation, one that was easy to check and hardly unusual for someone flying to Washington. Finally, if they really were worried, they should have hand-searched me as well as my briefcase -- which sat, unopened, on the security table for the entire time.
Some would say "better safe than sorry." However, treating innocent people as suspects is more than inconvenient. It chips away, ever so subtly, at the freedoms cherished by all Americans. Of course, liberty must be balanced with security. In Shater's case, airline spokesman Todd Burke explained: "we feel no one is above the approved security procedures."
Fair enough. But mindless "security" practices divert attention and resources from more serious threats. For instance, the three staffers dealing with me could have been monitoring service employees and screening baggage for bombs instead of standing around wondering why a nondescript, middle-aged WASP was reading articles about pharmaceuticals.
Americans understandably want to be safe. They should also want to be free. The real tragedy of cases like that of Walied Shater is that if we don't exercise eternal vigilance, we are likely to end up both less safe and less
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