Sunday, April 10, 2005

Stupid Airport Security Tricks 

Walter Williams did a column recently on Stupid Airport Security.

What about the TSA confiscation of "dangerous" personal items such as tweezers, hat pins, sewing scissors, knitting needles, etc.?
Of course this is nothing new, but it did remind me of a few anecdotes of my own in this genre.

My favorite was the time I decided to take the questioning of the guards at the gate a little too seriously. It was post-9/11, so I figured I'd give them accurate information and let them make the security judgements. I come from Israel, where we count on judgement of security services. I forgot that hiring security from qualified former military and intelligence personnel isn't the only model. In fact, sometimes it appears security is outsourced to high school work study internships.

I was asked as I prepared to board the flight if I had any weapons. No. I was asked if I had anything that could be used as a weapon--and here there was a pro-forma list read out along the lines of Walter Williams' example.

I thought a moment.

I volunteered that I didn't really have a weapon or anything like it, unless you counted the still wrapped plastic silverware from my previous flight's kosher meal, stowed away in my backpack. I grinned, confident that my good humor would indicate to them that I clearly understood the issues and they'd let me go on the plane without a strip search.

And perhaps my volunteering this incriminating info did save me a strip search. It's hard to be sure. Because they confiscated the stuff without a strip search. I tried to tell them that it was from another plane. That it was actually given to me on another airplane, and that I hand't used it on anyone, and that I was just keeping it in case I needed it on this upcoming flight ("Need it for what, buddy?" they must have wondered).

Yup, they took it. Without a struggle, I surrendered my plastic spoon, fork and knife, still wrapped in the plastic. Then they let me on the plane, where they promptly handed me a new set.

The serious note here is that the security still focuses so much on secondary objects rather than the primary danger: people. And much of this is because, at least in the US, it is practically a hate crime to screen people bordering a flight for any of the factors most correlated with the risk.

I still remember the sight of my little daughters, aged 2 and 4, and my pregnant wife, being frisked. The girls actually loved the experience, all the attention and excitement -- having their shoes checked -- but it was a waste of time.

While the terrorists have not succeeded in attacking the US again, they have succeeded in distorting economic activity through the imposition of stiff security costs, and we are willingly complicit in this. At some point we have to choose.

And I say this as someone who is searched "randomly" on every domestic flight in the US (approx 15 in a row now), essentially because my trips all originate in the Middle East. Just like my little girls. And so many grandmothers. Meanwhile, terrorist fly out of Boston.

And while I'm writing about Walter Williams, let me suggest a truly excellent series of his called Economics for the citizen. Truly inspired and amusing at the same time, read them all.
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