Airline security needs to be based on common sense, not policies that will turn citizens into inmates of their own countries
By Christopher Dickey
Updated: 10:44 a.m. ET Aug 29, 2006
Aug. 29, 2006 - Flying used to be about freedom. No matter where you intended to land, there was something magical about escaping to the heavens. Now, as we know, flying is more like going to prison, if not, indeed, to hell.
As it happens, I once spent a week interviewing inmates and staff at what was then the main “super-max” federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. It was the successor to Alcatraz, and the predecessor of the facility that opened in Florence, Colorado, in 1994. “Security” was its aim, its ethos, its excuse for everything. Life in Marion had so many grim limitations and restrictions that the worst of the worst criminals convicted in federal courts—spies, drug lords, racist murderers, gang leaders—actually would try to behave themselves in hopes they might someday get out of its peculiar purgatory, even though the greatest escape they could achieve was transfer to another federal pen.
The operative principle for prison security was that anything one inmate managed to make into a weapon would be taken away from everyone. Saran Wrap was a case in point. Sandwiches had come in it. But one of the inmates discovered a way to burn an aspirin tablet, generating enough heat to melt the wrap, harden it, and make a dagger, so no more cellophane on the sandwiches. Ditto bed springs. They could be cut, twisted and sharpened into weapons, so the beds were concrete slabs.
The cardboard backing on every legal pad at Marion was torn off because one prisoner managed to fashion it into a crude bomb filled with match heads, using bits of metal zipper as shrapnel. The most benign objects were, in the imagination of the inmates and the guards, potential deadly weapons. One by one, they were taken away until each convict’s life was made as barren as it could possibly be made.
"Big Brother is always watching," the warden at Marion told me. The basic goal was to keep prisoners safe from each other and alive: “pure security,” he called it. "Every day that goes by and no inmate or staff member is seriously hurt, we've accomplished our mission."
Doubtless those responsible for airline safety have a similarly fatalist, minimalist view, and not without cause. It’s been five years since September 11, 2001, when 19 men using box cutters on commercial flights changed the world forever. No one would ever want to see that again. But the draconian security measures taken after an alleged airline terror plot was revealed in Britain earlier this month have exposed the reductio ad absurdum of current thinking about what makes us safe, or not.
The last few days have seen a stunning series of exaggerated reactions to minor incidents. On Friday alone, half a dozen little security breaches or anonymous threats suddenly escalated into significant aircraft diversions or delays around the United States. Earlier last week, a United Airlines flight from London to Washington D.C. landed in Boston—accompanied by fighter jets—when a 59-year-old American woman named Catherine Mayo acted like a nut. She reportedly urinated outside the plane’s galley and allegedly mumbled something about Al Qaeda.
(Afterwards, it turned out Mayo has spent a lot of time traveling in Pakistan, ostensibly as a journalist. She wrote an article in 2003 for the English-language Daily Times there that blamed American psychiatrists for what she called the “manic depression” of the United States after 9/11. “This is a woman with very serious mental health issues,” Mayo’s public defender told the court in Boston during her initial hearing on Friday.)
And then there was Northwest Flight 042. When a dozen young Indian businessmen returning from a wedding boarded it in Amsterdam for the last leg of their flight home to Mumbai last week, they were in a decidedly rambunctious mood. (Although all were Muslim, it’s not clear how observant or abstemious they were.) They were trading seats, playing with their cell phones, allegedly refusing to turn them off, and some reportedly taunted the cabin crew by tossing the phones to each other.
American sky marshals on board got involved. About 10 minutes out from Amsterdam, the pilot wheeled around, escorted back to the ground by fighter jets (which seems to be standard operating procedure). The alleged troublemakers were hauled off, but Dutch officials then cleared them to fly home the next day.
The Indian press quickly declared the real “crime” of the businessmen was the color of their skin. "If brown equals terrorist, doesn't white equal racist?" suggested an editorial in the Hindustan Times. And knee-jerk prejudice might have played a role, but the essence of the problem lies in the fact that so much has come to seem sinister that overwhelmed security staff and paranoid passengers see threats everywhere they look: in a beard or a prayer, a cell phone or a soft drink.
By coincidence, a NEWSWEEK reporter was on the previous leg of Northwest Flight 042, which went from Minneapolis to Amsterdam that same day. Barbie Nadeau was returning home to Rome from vacation in the States with her husband and two little boys, ages 6 and 4. In Minnesota, the security obsession was less with skin tones and Motorolas than with run-of-the-mill liquids. Parents of little kids were watched especially closely, it seemed, because the screeners suspected they might be smuggling boxes of juice on board.
As Nadeau points out in an e-mail, her family’s two carry-on bags had enough electronics in them to wire a missile: “a laptop, a portable DVD player, a sound-blaster adapter and headphones, two cell phones, four MP3 players with headphones, a BlackBerry, a brick of AA batteries and two hand-held video games.” The security woman paid them no attention. “She dug around the electronics, searching for juice. About three other moms nearby were going through the same harassment…”
Nadeau concedes that the screeners and airline staff were just doing their job, “but it struck me that the security was so focused on finding and confiscating any liquid item, they were actually not focusing on any other potentially suspicious things anyone might be carrying. Case in point: nail clippers. I didn't realize they were in my bag, but they got by in Minneapolis, only to be confiscated in Amsterdam.”
Ah, yes, nail clippers. I have searched in vain for the example of nail clippers being used to hijack an airplane—on the face of it a pretty ludicrous proposition—but I guess someone could imagine they might be. Just as Saran Wrap can become a dagger. Or the cardboard back of a legal pad can be made into a bomb with zipper shrapnel.
We are walking in our socks through security checks, you realize, not because anybody ever succeeded in blowing up a plane with explosive shoes, but because one man tried and failed. Moms are surreptitiously smuggling juice boxes for their kids because the alleged plotters in Britain reportedly wanted to mix up explosives on board planes using different liquid components. But recent reporting on that case suggests they may not have known what they were doing, or how to do it.
Should we be concerned and careful? Yes. And we shouldn’t think there are easy answers. The much-vaunted Israeli model for airline security works at one single airport, Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion, and with one small airline overseas, El Al, using highly educated screeners, many of whom are performing their national military service. Can the U.S. use the same psychological profiling techniques at hundreds of airports with screeners paid a little over the minimum wage and, perhaps, a high school diploma? Doubtful. Is better physical screening the answer? Bernard E. Harcourt, a professor at the University of Chicago who has written extensively on these issues suggested in an International Herald Tribune op-ed last week that the best approach would be “to eliminate most carry-ons and emulate high-security prisons…”
In fact, security systems will continue evolving, as will terrorist efforts to get around them. But the policies that develop in that process have to be based on a cool, common sense assessment of the real threats, not sensationalism and cover-your-ass bureaucracy. The failed dreams of would-be terrorists cannot be the measure of the threat against us. To achieve “pure security,” in the end, Americans would have to become inmates of their own country.