Jewish World Review Jan. 2, 2002/ 18 Teves 5762

Wesley Pruden

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Not much security, but rousting is fun -- AIRPORT security is no fun for anybody, except the occasional screener who gets a kick out of keeping a thumb inside a bra or a hand down a stranger's pants a little longer than absolutely necessary.

Such stories, unfortunately, abound.

Nearly everyone agrees that airport security is a bit of a joke. The ease with which Robert Reid talked his way on to an American Airlines flight in Paris, over the objections of the pilot, illustrates just how lax everything still is three months after September 11. The authorities have resorted to what the cops call a "roust," long lines and petty harassment of every passenger with a pair of tweezers or a loose emery board, all to keep the evildoers off guard.

This is in the spirit of the goofy philosophy of Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, the token goofy Democrat in the Bush cabinet, who insists that it's wrong to pay particular attention to swarthy Arab men of the type who take down World Trade Centers and crash planes into the Pentagon. Mr. Mineta insists, against common sense and expensive experience, that proper law enforcement means that his screeners must pay equal attention to elderly blond blue-eyed ladies from Minnesota, of the type whose idea of terror is a little extra garlic in the lamb stew for the Wednesday night covered-dish supper at the Lutheran church. The list of elderly blond, blue-eyed church ladies from Minnesota who have blown up airplanes and office buildings is a very short one, despite Mr. Mineta's belief that such ladies are just as likely as Islamist radicals to do bad things with explosives.

Airport security was supposed to have been taken care of by Democratic insistence that the screeners should be federalized and made part of a vast new government bureaucracy, which would expand like the dough for the yeast rolls at the Wednesday night suppers at the Lutheran church, just in time to pad the rolls with Democratic voters for '04. Now it turns out that the federal screeners will be the same old screeners jeered at as hopeless private employees.

The New York Times reports that "in a shift," the Transportation Security Administration, the new bureaucracy created at Democratic insistence, won't displace the thousands of private screeners after all. The feds had promised that the new, improved screeners would be high-school graduates. The requirement - "screeners must be U.S. citizens, have a high-school diploma and pass a standardized test" - would have disqualified 7,000 of the 28,000 airport screeners. The feds would allow a year of "relevant work experience" to be substituted for a high school diploma.

But Paul Takemoto, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, said yesterday that there was "no such announcement" and "there's no shift." Careful readers will note that this is not a denial at all, only that there was no "announcement" and there was no "shift." It's a game government flacks play.

Mr. Takemoto said the stipulation that some privately employed airport screeners could substitute a year's job experience for a high school education is only meant to take advantage of existing assets. "What we're looking for are good, qualified airport screeners and the one-year experience is invaluable, and maybe even more important than having a high school diploma."

He may be right. A high-school diploma doesn't mean as much as it once did, when a good public high school turned out boys and girls who knew as much as many Harvard graduates know today, but the new policy is nevertheless a shift from what the government said on Nov. 19, and a sharp departure from what the Democrats were saying in the heated congressional debate earlier than that.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, a Republican who sponsored the legislation establishing the new security administration, is satisfied with the shift that the government insists isn't a shift. "I would prefer for us to upgrade across the board, but I also believe that there can be a judgment call here, and if someone has good experience and has shown the ability to do the job, that that should not be a disqualifier."

However, David Stempler, president of the Air Travelers Association, suspects the shift is a government shortcut to meet "a very difficult deadline" of Nov. 19, 2002. "We don't want to be just recycling these workers, because to some degree that's what got us into trouble in the first place." He wants the "new" screeners to have law enforcement skills, and to be able to intelligently scan crowds, rather than mindlessly watching a computer screen, as if waiting for a rerun of "As the World Turns." It's not a lot to ask, but so far it's more than the government can deliver.

JWR contributor Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Washington Times. Comment by clicking here.

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