Privacy & Security

Do We Really Want Bulletproof Security?

We’ve all experienced the realization that the security proceedings we’re humiliated by at the airport are useless.

“Security theater” is a term I’ve heard to describe it, and I think that’s a fitting description.

My own breaking point occurred about 15 years ago, when I witnessed an elderly woman in a wheelchair subjected to a pat-down by a female Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screener who could have played defensive tackle for the Arizona Cardinals.  The screener removed a hairpin from the woman’s hair and screamed at her for carrying a dangerous weapon.

Two hours later, I was sitting in business class enjoying a steak served with metal utensils, which were just as potentially deadly as the offending hairpin. And no one in my section of the plane had to use a wheelchair.

Yet nearly two decades after the 9/11 attacks, it’s still relatively easy to sneak explosive materials and other dangerous devices past TSA screeners.

In 2015, the TSA sent undercover agents to dozens of America’s largest airports to test security protocols. Shockingly, the agents were able to smuggle fake explosives or weapons through security checkpoints 95% of the time. The TSA failed in 67 out of 70 tests.

Is there a system that would be more effective?

I’m not a security expert, but I’ve long believed that larger airports need to be more robustly defended than smaller ones. The tiny Yeager Airport in my hometown of Charleston, West Virginia doesn’t need as robust a security protocol as Chicago’s O’Hare, for instance.

For that reason, I was heartened to learn that the TSA is considering removing or at least cutting back on checkpoints in some smaller US airports that service planes seating 60 or fewer people. Agents could then be redeployed to larger airports servicing bigger planes. It’s an interesting proposal, although critics say that terrorists will simply target those airports since they’re more lightly secured.

That’s a valid point, but security won’t be entirely eliminated at smaller airports. And even if terrorists manage to board a commuter plane that seats 60 people, the worst they could do would be to blow it up, killing everyone on board. That’s a horrible loss, of course, but it pales in comparison to the casualties of 9/11.

And a repeat of 9/11 is unlikely thanks to what I think is the most effective flight security measure that’s been implemented since 9/11: reinforcing cockpit doors so they can’t be forced open.

What strategies would be effective to avoid terrorist-related incidents on airplanes? One clue is to examine the track record of countries that face far more serious security threats than the US. One such country is Israel.

Surrounded by hostile neighbors that literally want to wipe it off the map, Israel has no choice but to take airline security seriously. The country’s measures are effective, because no flight to or from Israel has been successfully hijacked since 1968.

Israel places much more emphasis on identifying potential terrorists than on potentially dangerous objects, such as an elderly woman’s hairpin. Every passenger boarding a plane to or from Israel is questioned by a security agent. The agent is trained to read a passenger’s body language to identify signs of nervousness or suspicious behavior.

On the other hand, passengers on flights leaving Israel needn’t remove their shoes on their way to their gate. Nor does Israel use hugely expensive backscatter full-body X-ray machines to screen passengers. It still has old-school metal detectors in place, a technology that has changed little since the 1970s. You can even carry bottled water or baby formula onto a flight.

To its credit, the TSA already does something similar. Since 2017, the agency has required 180 airlines flying to the US to interview all passengers on inbound flights. But this process is nowhere near as rigorous as passengers bound to or from Israel must undergo. I flew from London to Phoenix on British Airways a few months ago, and after answering just two or three cursory questions from the ticket agent when I checked in, I got my boarding pass.

Of course, I don’t fit the profile of a terrorist. I’m a white, Protestant American citizen by birth who at 63 is far older than a typical terrorist.

But race, religion, citizenship, and age are all factors that Israel uses to assess risk. And it works. In the US, though, profiling based on a passenger’s race or religion raises serious concerns. And rightly so. I have serious reservations about singling out passengers based on their religion or the color of their skin.

On the other hand, Israel has proven that this approach works. And it begs a larger question: how much security do we really want?

Personally, I’m willing to risk an occasional security breach to avoid more government intrusion into our lives. Not to mention harassing innocent individuals with a different racial or religious background than I have. Other people, of course, might disagree.

But it’s time to seriously rethink the approach the US has taken to airline security. A wheelchair-bound grandmother with a metal hairpin is no threat. In a rational security screening scenario, she wouldn’t be harassed.

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