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Airport Security and Common Sense

Every time I point out the complete absence of common sense in our airport security procedures–You think it will protect anyone to take away granny’s tweezers? What about the bottle of wine you can quite legally buy on the other side of the security gates, anyone ever thought about how easily you could turn that into a weapon?–I can count the minutes until someone brings up the equally ludicrous idea that the solution to this problem is “profiling.” Inevitably there’s a lament that our collective political correctness prevents us from adopting this obvious, common-sense solution. Apparently, only our pusillanimous unwillingness to admit what we apparently all know to be the truth keeps us from snapping our fingers and making our skies safe. 

Yes, well, this idea too reflects a complete absence of the ability to think one’s way out of a paper bag.  Think beyond the “robust indignation” stage. Be practical. How would this “profiling” business work?

We start with the idea that statistically, over the past decade, most attempts to take down commercial airliners have been committed by young male Muslims. Fine, fine. I’m not too politically correct to say that, and frankly, not many people are. So, okay, let’s take all the young, male Muslims and take away their tweezers. After all, it’s easy to see who’s young and male.

Oh, wait, the third part is hard, isn’t it. Muslim–that’s a religion. So, what exactly are we looking for?

Idea: Muslim names. Yep, let’s look for those. We search anyone named Muhammed. For good measure, we search anyone whose name we can’t pronounce. 

Terrorist with half-a-brain’s response: No worries, my name’s Shmuel Leibovitz. Excuse me, please, I’m in a hurry–which way to the “non-Muslim” line?

Idea: Well, okay, let’s give special attention to anyone traveling on a passport issued by a country with a lot of Muslims.

Terrorist with half-a-brain’s response: Thank God these Americans have no grasp on reality. “Yes, sir, I’m Swedish. Which way to the express line?” 

Idea: Well, we’ll just ask! “Excuse me, Sir, are you a Muslim?”

Terrorist with half-a-brain’s response: “Goodness, no. I’m a Quaker.” 

Idea: Well, what about people who look like Muslims?

Terrorist with half-a-brain’s response: God must want this nation destroyed, why else would he have made these people so stupid? They can’t even decide whether their own president looks like a Muslim, they’re going to figure out whether I do?

Idea: Okay, all dark-skinned people!

Terrorist with half-a-brain’s response: Man, the lines at the airport are long. 

Someone’s about to say, “But the Israelis profile, and that works!”

No, you’re completely misunderstanding what the Israelis do. They do not profile, they ransack your luggage over and over and they interrogate you for hours–it is an effective but incredibly time- and labor-intensive system. Among their successes include two famous cases: in one, they prevented Anne-Marie Murphy, a pregnant Irishwoman (a white, non-Muslim woman named Murphy: I repeat, Murphy) from carrying a bomb on to the plane; in the other they prevented an ethnic-German national (a white, non-Muslim guy) from boarding the plane with explosives. Neither of them knew what they were carrying. Look up the cases of Colleen Renee LaRose, Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, I could extend this list for a very long time–and tell me what “profiling” would have done to keep them off a plane.

What the Israelis do is effective, but it’s not scaleable. Israel is a minuscule country. You could probably fit the whole Zionist Entity inside of Dallas-Ft. Worth airport. (That may even be literally true: I leave it to you to check.) It has exactly one major international airport, which handles maybe ten million passengers a year. In America, you’ve got about two million people flying every single day, 86 airports that carry more than a million passengers per year, and 25 that carry more than ten million–each one, in other words, handling the volume of traffic handled by the entire State of Israel. If you think the lines move quickly in Israel, think again. Implement those kinds of procedures and you’d grind what’s left of the US economy to a halt.

The Israelis aren’t using some racial or religious algorithm to screen passengers. If they were, I wouldn’t get stuck at security at Ben Gurion for hours every time I fly there, would I? I assure you they don’t take a look at my passport and say, “Well, she’s an American, and ‘Berlinski’ sounds kind-of Jewish, so she’s probably fine.” Every single time, they interrogate me for hours.

“Profiling” is a security fantasy, just like “sticking your hands down an elderly woman’s diaper” is a security fantasy–both amount to some kind of neo-pagan pre-flight prayer ritual. What’s rational is competent intelligence work of the kind the FBI actually does pretty well, to judge from the number of terrorist attacks that have been interrupted in recent years. What’s rational are locked and hardened cockpit doors, and making passengers fully aware that if the plane is hijacked, you rise up as one and kill the hijackers. Metal-detector screening–for firearms–is reasonable. Looking for tweezers and liquids is not. Indecent bodily searches are not. Making people take their computers out of their bags is not–that’s an X-ray machine, for goodness’ sake. 

The fact that Americans don’t want to face is that you just can’t take all the risk out of flying. We’ve done all we reasonably can. Anything more is a waste of time and resources, and the overwhelmingly nonsensical part of this is the exclusive focus on airplanes: You don’t need to be in the air to be the object of a terrorist attack, do you? Just ask the Israelis (or the Turks, for that matter).

Once you say, “We’ll put up with anything to make sure terrorists can’t kill us,” the logic is inescapable: Some government official should be sticking his hand up everyone’s pants everywhere human beings in America gather. I would have thought that impossible, but I would have thought it impossible we’d put up with this, too. 

  1. David Williamson

    So, what’s the common sense solution?

    A guy tries to blow up an airplane with his shoes – we all have to take our shoes off.

    A guy tries to blow up an airplane with a bomb in his underwear – we all…?

  2. Sisyphus

    And you think this is the treatment everyone gets, not just single Jewish women traveling on an American passport with an Istanbul permanent address? Never having traveled to Israel, I wonder if some other Ricos that have can chime in on this.

    As for perfect safety, it does not exist and never has. The TSA is performance art for the sheeple. And our brilliant government has already launched trial balloons to extend their perfect service (going on ten years and still no attacks prevented by TSA measures) to trains, no doubt rapid rail will require very special scrutiny.

    I was on travel on 9/11. When the planes finally flew again, and at the security station they asked me about nail clippers, I knew my nation was scared stupid. Coming into the airport to finally leave town there were about a hundred tired, angry people sequestered outside a small airport security office in a skanky hall, waiting to find out which new TSA taboo they had run afoul of.

    I no longer fly on pleasure, not because of the terror risk but because of the TSA nuisance.

  3. Michael Labeit

    Sounds like I’m driving to Tel Aviv.

  4. Claire Berlinski
    C
    Sisyphus: And you think this is the treatment everyone gets, not just single Jewish women traveling on an American passport with an Istanbul permanent address?

    I’ve never heard anyone recount any other kind of story about it. It would be hard to document in a non-anecdotal way what the “standard” procedure is. But let’s put the question out there for anecdotal reports: Anyone here ever sailed through Ben Gurion? 

  5. Alex Metcalf

    If the TSA reads this and gets the harebrained idea to make sure I can’t get wine on the other side of the security gate, I will not be pleased with you Claire Berlinski…

  6. Israel P.
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    Sisyphus: And you think this is the treatment everyone gets, not just single Jewish women traveling on an American passport with an Istanbul permanent address?

    I’ve never heard anyone recount any other kind of story about it. It would be hard to document in a non-anecdotal way what the “standard” procedure is. But let’s put the question out there for anecdotal reports: Anyone here ever sailed through Ben Gurion?  · Jul 4 at 1:36am

    I have always gone through pretty quickly, with no hassle.  Reasonable inspection, reasonable questioning.  But of course, I have lived here for most of my adult life. From what I know, the average American Jewish tourist is little different.

    It is reasonable for Israeli security to wonder why someone like Claire chooses to live in a place where many people hate us and if the answer to that question has any security ramifications.

  7. Claire Berlinski
    C
    Israel P It is reasonable for Israeli security to wonder why someone like Claire chooses to live in a place where many people hate us and if the answer to that question has any security ramifications. · Jul 4 at 1:53am

    Of course it’s reasonable. What’s not reasonable is to expect this model to work in the United States. By the way, I’ve experienced this every time I’ve flown to Israel–not just when I lived in Turkey. 

  8. Del Mar Dave

     I have a close friend with lifelong ties to the aviation and intel communities, incuding serving as a very high-ranking, appointed official in the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations.  On the day after 9-11, he told me that if we had still had in place the 1960s-1970s profiling criteria, none of the hijackers would have been allowed to board.

    Of course, the NY Times would have then published the criteria, enabling the bad guys to get around them.

  9. Claire Berlinski
    C
    Del Mar Dave:  I have a close friend with lifelong ties to the aviation and intel communities, incuding serving as a very high-ranking, appointed official in the Nixon, Ford and Carter administrations.  On the day after 9-11, he told me that if we had still had in place the 1960s-1970s profiling criteria, none of the hijackers would have been allowed to board.

    Of course, the NY Times would have then published the criteria, enabling the bad guys to get around them. · Jul 4 at 3:40am

    So he’s standing on this record?

  10. Heshmon

    In 24 years of traveling to and from Israel by air, I have never been questioned – on the Ben Gurion Airport side – beyond the cursory “who packed your bags” kind of questions, etc. And while I may be in a different pool because I live here, none of my many relatives who have come to visit over the years have mentioned any interrogation beyond a few minutes while on the regular line.

    My wife worked for many years training people in the Israeli airport/flight security apparatus. There IS profiling, but it’s only one part, and it’s besides the point. What’s not scalable is the high quality and motivation of the people doing the screening.

  11. Claire Berlinski
    C
    Heshmon: In 24 years of traveling to and from Israel by air, I have never been questioned – on the Ben Gurion Airport side – beyond the cursory “who packed your bags” kind of questions, etc. And while I may be in a different pool because I live here, none of my many relatives who have come to visit over the years have mentioned any interrogation beyond a few minutes while on the regular line.

    Really? Interesting. Revision of my theory might be in order. It’s totally possible (and likely given what you’re saying) that the group of people with whom I compared experiences all have something in common that makes Israeli airport officials say, “suspicious.” Now, remember, they thought this of me when I was 18 years old, too, so obvious things like “says he or she is a journalist” or “has traveled to weird countries” wouldn’t be the triggers. I’m trying to think of any commonality between me and other people with whom I’ve compared notes and I can’t think of one: It’s awide sample of professions, religions, ages. But they converge on “talking to Claire Berlinski,” so sampling bias is a possibility.

  12. Nick Stuart

    So what to do?

    Ramp the airport “security” back to what it was before 9/11:  valid ID, valid boarding pass, x-ray the carry-on.

    On the plane: make it easier for the pilots to carry firearms, additionally strengthen the bulkhead and doors to the cockpit.

    Increase the presence of armed air marshalls on the planes (making sure they’re allowed to dress and act in a way that doesn’t draw attention to themselves).

    We wouldn’t be any less safe, probably more safe, and we wouldn’t have the ever more oppresive TSA regime.

  13. Heshmon
    Now, remember, they thought this of me when I was 18 years old, too, so obvious things like “says he or she is a journalist” or “has traveled to weird countries” wouldn’t be the triggers. I’m trying to think of any commonality between me and other people with whom I’ve compared notes and I can’t think of one: It’s awide sample of professions, religions, ages. But they converge on “talking to Claire Berlinski,” so sampling bias is a possibility.

    It does seem strange that our experiences would be so totally different – especially going back to when you were a kid.  The only time I was ever harassed by airport security was in London, en route from Israel to the USA while on leave from my Israeli military service in ’89 or ’90, by a possibly Pakistani security guard.  He seemed to think I was some sort of Mossad spy, and insisted on seeing my military leave papers (which of course were in Hebrew).

  14. Herkybird

    One common sense approach may be to recognize not all classes of people boarding an airplane pose an equal risk of being a terrorist; the Crew for example. Yet, despite required ten-year pre-employment background screening, Flight Crew are subjected to the same nonsense as everyone else.

    One Christmas I was flying a 747 freighter from London, Stanstead . Upon arriving at the cargo village we had to do a bag-drag to have our luggage X-Ray’d. The jobsworth running the machine pulled out my spit-kit and asked, “Is there shaving cream in here?”  I answered Yes, and she continued, “We’ll have to confiscate it.”  And that’s when the fight started.

    “You see that airplane out there?” I said pointing out the window. “Fully loaded it weighs 820,000 pounds of which 350,000 pounds is jet fuel.  And I’ve got the keys for it right here in my pocket. If I want to take out the Houses of Parliament do you think I’m just  going to throw that can of shaving cream out the window?”

    The Supervisor was called but I eventually left…still with the shaving cream. 

  15. iWc

    I have not only gone through the security line to/from Israel smoothly, but I have been sent to the line without even going through the metal detector! I was traveling with my family, and the screener asked 2 questions, and sent us down the line that passed us right through.

    The fact is, they profile. It is not all that they do, but it is a first pass. And single women are a higher risk. In this case, we were traveling with our au pair. They gave *her* the nth degree.

    Claire is making two basic errors here:

    1: Most bad guys willing to kill themselves do not have half a brain. The number of capable suicide bombers is very, very small. That is why they recruit handicapped and retarded people. Thank G-d our enemy is NOT as clever as we are. Most Ricocheters could bring down a lot of planes. I know that I could. But I am a good guy – so not a threat.

  16. iWc

    2: There is not an infinite supply of bad guys. There is very much a shortage of blond suicide bombers named Hans. We won’t catch 100%, but giving muslims special attention will definitely cut down the numbers. And there are lots of ways to see if someone is a muslim or not – from kneejerk reactions to koranic expressions, to a variation on the famous Hug a Jew theme: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ajNpR6bmes

  17. iWc

    The whole “known traveller” program is a good idea. We cannot scale Israeli style procedures at every turn, but we CAN interview people properly and comprehensively *once*, which gives them a fast track in the future. Probably 80-90% of the flying public would do this, if it meant making the experience faster and more pleasant.

    The other 10-20% would be scrutinized. But let’s ditch the TSA. Outsource this to a private firm, incentivized appropriately. Market solutions will work.

  18. Deleted Account
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.

    Heshmon: In 24 years of traveling to and from Israel by air, I have never been questioned – on the Ben Gurion Airport side – beyond the cursory “who packed your bags” kind of questions, etc. And while I may be in a different pool because I live here, none of my many relatives who have come to visit over the years have mentioned any interrogation beyond a few minutes while on the regular line.

    Really? Interesting. Revision of my theory might be in order. It’s totally possible (and likely given what you’re saying) that the group of people with whom I compared experiences all have something in common that makes Israeli airport officials say, “suspicious.”

    Behavior analysis is a big part of Israeli airport security. Essentially what you want to do is provoke fear/evasion/uncertainty type responses in potential terrorists while making others feel secure – even at the cost of irritation – and have well trained and committed observers. If you tend to have a temper you might also get questioned simply for practice.

  19. Mollie Hemingway

    I’ve only flown out of Ben Gurion once and the questioning, unpacking and screening took the full three hours I’d allotted for getting through. I was flagged at the questioning process. Probably didn’t help that I had so many electronics during the initial screen.

    But as to the main point, yes, the money and the freedom we’ve expended through TSA would be awful even if they had ever caught a single terrorist since they began.

  20. Western Chauvinist

    Half the battle is won by the Israelis because everyone knows they profile!  This stupid moral preening the progressives do, the “we don’t profile” conceit, only serves to alleviate the concerns of terrorists and to force Granny Smith of Podunk, Iowa, through the TSA Depends check.  

    It’s like announcing to the Taliban, “we’ll have our troops out by Labor Day 2012.” Sheesh, have they never played poker at the Ivies?