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Jewish World Review March 26, 2002 / 13 Nisan, 5762

Michael Long

Mike Long
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The Big Story No One Talks About

Why isn't Washington serious about airport security? | How safe are we in the skies? Regardless of what tragedies have been prevented-and whether new security measures had much to do with it-Washington is falling down on the job.

Writing just now from 35,000 feet and heading toward Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC, the details seem rather stark-and the failure inexcusable.

First, what we're doing isn't bad, it's just incomplete-and some of the frustration isn't the fault of Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta or Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge. Here was my "at-first" thought today, standing in line at Chicago's Midway airport, emptying my pockets and undoing a half-dozen snaps and flaps to "present my laptop for inspection": Unless Mr. Ridge knows something I don't about the murderous potential of plastic knives and forks, the sign that lists them next to box cutters and handguns is a little silly.

But as I learned long ago as a student of physics, the difficult part of a problem lives at its boundaries. What is the definition of a plastic knife, really? In this overlawyered, under-common-sensed age, do we really want a minimum wage airport employee who's been staring inside luggage all day to have to manage a dispute with Suzy Salad over whether her silver-colored, pretty-damn-sharp-for-plastic knife passes the test?

Some Americans substitute litigation and argument for common sense and maturity, and Tom Ridge can't do anything to fix that.

But the rules in general should worry us because they are piecemeal, and do not reflect an overarching strategy to prevent either pre-flight tampering or admission to the aircraft of explosives and weapons in any form, from any entrance, under the cover of any medium.

A kid six rows in front of me just took off his shoes, and my first thought was of that shoe-bomb nut with the wacky hair and post-Space-Mountain look on his face. Until that guy showed up in his Firecracker Keds, it never crossed anyone's mind to check passengers' shoes. Now there are spot-checks of shoes-take them off and what, smell them for gunpowder?-in addition to the X-rays, baggage matching, "turn on your PC" tests, etc.

What if some aspiring terrorist is playing "Q" to his martyrdom-bound buddy's "James Bond" in-oh, let's just name a place at random-Baghdad? The first time somebody's hat blows up, we'll be checking hats.

Can't a bomb-sniffing dog just be walked through the area in front of the metal detectors as people come through? How hard is this to do?

New security measures appear as reactions to tragedies, not preventatives for them. Washington must do better.

In December I spoke with a pilot who, not for attribution, described security measures as "a [expletive] joke." He told me that in one Eastern Seaboard airport, custodial crews are at times recruited from local jails as part of a work-release program, and that to ensure that they pass the test for the job, proctors distribute the answers.

He told me that pilots know where the weaknesses are, and that the morale of experienced aviation professionals is declining along with the trust and respect they were shown before all this happened.

The best example of Washington's utter failure on this issue is that when limited air travel resumed on September 13, planes took off with bags in the cargo hold that had never been tested even cursorily for explosives. That's inexcusable-especially when the House of Representatives was falling all over itself to pass an airline bailout the next day. Where was the rush to guarantee passenger safety? The airlines are important to the economy, we all know that, but lives come first. Cutting billion-dollar checks to airlines could have waited a few days while the government dispatched the National Guard to work behind the ticket counters inspecting every bag. It could have been done-this was not difficult to have figured out.

As of January 16-four months after September 11-only 10 percent of checked baggage was being examined for explosives. This is absolutely unacceptable, and the lack of public demand to remedy this negligence is our own fault, and the fault of the media that amazingly fail to report it.

We seem safe for the moment, but it's an illusion built on fortunate coincidence. It's certainly not because the federal government is ordering safety measures to be complete, absolute, and unbendable.

If we don't get serious soon, something bad will happen again. Bet on it.

JWR contributor Michael Long is a a director of the White House Writers Group. Comment by clicking here.


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03/08/02: The safest place in the world --- for now
03/05/02: Some Animals Are More Equal Than Others
02/22/02: And Then What?: Fear and Loathing Around the Corner
02/15/02: Al Gore and the real root cause of terrorism
02/08/02: A few thoughts on the news
02/01/02: Ready, Aim, Cloud The Issue: An irresponsible report on "terrorism" from the Brady Center
01/28/02: Discretion and Art, Part 2
01/16/02: Discretion and Art
01/08/02: Desperate Dems
12/18/01: Politics and Holidays
12/07/01: A war bigger than we know: Changing the future, slowly and surely
11/28/01: A Mid-Winter Night's Dream: A play in one fun act
11/20/01: A Lot of War Left To Fight
11/13/01: Guess who Clinton's apologizing for now: I'll bet you guessed right
11/02/01: Rules for Wartime: Rule Number One: Remember what's true
10/26/01: The Moral Case For Torture: Dirty hands don't always mean dirty souls
10/19/01: Questions for the Anti-War Crowd, Part II: What if someone took them seriously?
10/16/01: Questions for the anti-war crowd: If they question you, ask these back
10/12/01: The Jason Problem: Sometimes they only look dead
10/08/01: A little hindsight: A letter for readers in the future
09/28/01: Calling Bono: A plea to the pop culture elite to speak out
09/20/01: Encouragement from the Heartland, by mail
09/13/01: Bleeding time
09/07/01: The trailer-park taste of the public radio catalog
09/04/01: BRAVE NEW FREUD: Internet-based psychiatry may mean relief for those who have shunned treatment
08/17/01: First Amendment: Chickens home to roost
07/27/01: Dispatch From The Front: The Gun Control War
07/20/01: Summer song
07/03/01: It's a Wonderful Recount

© 2001, Michael Long