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Jay Evensen: Will TSA find terror in a diaper?

Published: Thursday, June 30 2011 9:44 a.m. MDT

I suppose an al Qaida operative could have gotten to 95-year-old Lena Reppert, who is in a wheelchair suffering from leukemia.

It might have happened during one of those moments when her daughter, who was wheeling her, was momentarily distracted. He could have used that split second to shove a bomb up her adult diaper without her knowledge.

Or perhaps Reppert herself, a grandmother who was flying from Florida to Michigan to be with family, may have been in cahoots with a terrorist sleeper cell, about to play out her secret life-long wish to destroy Western civilization.

It's just that I'm doubtful. I'm pretty sure you are, too, even if you weren't at the North Florida Regional Airport a few weeks ago when Transportation Safety Administration agents told Reppert and her daughter they were going to have to inspect the elderly woman's diaper before allowing her to proceed to her gate.

On 9/11 we learned about the audacity and creativity of terrorists who pose as something innocent while hiding their true identities. And yet airport security (they were employed by private companies in those days) could have detained every grandmother in the country that day and not changed a thing. Security isn't about treating everyone equally. It's not about searching for things. It's about searching for bad people.

As Independence Day approaches, it is time to reconsider whether airport safety has joined hands with political correctness in ways that make us neither safe nor free.

Horror stories about the TSA are about as common as ghost stories around the campfire. They would strike skeptical souls as the stuff of urban legend, except they are backed up by actual videos.

And so, if you have the Internet you can watch as a sweet and submissive 6-year-old girl is frisked, as a baby is given a pat-down while being held stomach-down by its mother, or listen to a crying young woman describe how the intrusive body search she had to endure in Dallas made her feel violated.

Or you can read about 29-year-old Drew Mandy, a mentally disabled man who was singled out in Detroit and forced to give up a plastic toy hammer he had held onto as a security blanket for many years.

For a more personal touch, you can simply ask friends or coworkers to relate their own stories of flying.

It won't take long before you start to wish the Texas Legislature had decided last week to pass a bill that would have outlawed intrusive searches in that state. The bill would have specifically kept federal employees from improperly touching a person's private areas without probable cause.

Gov. Rick Perry put the measure on a special session agenda, but it failed, largely because the Federal Aviation Administration had threatened to cancel all flights in and out of Texas — a threat even more absurd than the abuses people are capturing on their cell phone cameras.

The bill likely would have been declared unconstitutional. Federal law takes precedence over state laws. But Texas might have had the clout to get Washington's attention. A similar bill is being considered here, but Utah has little clout.

Meanwhile, in a nation that seems obsessed with anger at Washington and bureaucrats in general, airports seem strangely immune from tea parties.

It's not that I'm opposed to airport security, or that I am na?e about how devious terrorists can be. It's just that I think it would be better to be smart than needlessly thorough.

L.A. Times columnist Jonah Goldberg said it well last week when he wrote that we can't expect TSA workers to use common sense or discretion if they aren't trained to do so. The Israelis, he said, have intelligent screeners who are trained to use interviews to inspect people.

They aren't likely to be caught with their hands in someone's diaper or inspecting plastic hammers the next time a terrorist tries to get by.

Jay Evensen is a Deseret News editorial writer. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his web site, www.jayevensen.com.

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