Airport security could use some common sense

Published: Thursday, June 6 2013 9:20 a.m. MDT

In this Jan. 4, 2010 file photo, TSA officer Robert Howard signals an airline passenger forward at a security check-point at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in SeaTac, Wash.

Elaine Thompson, Associated Press

I doubt many parents out there haven’t been beaten with a plastic baseball bat a time or two, usually after misjudging the age appropriateness of organized sports in the back yard.

Not only do they live through these encounters, they quickly learn that only one party in the fracas generally suffers any damage, and that is the bat itself.

So, are we really to believe a terrorist, or even an overly aggressive middle manager who has had one too many beverages on his way to a convention, is going to use such a device to wreak havoc on an airplane?

Apparently so, because on Wednesday the Transportation Security Administration announced it was backtracking on an earlier decision to ease the rules as to what people could carry aboard flights, and one of the eased rules that used to be on the TSA web site had to do with plastic toy bats.

Can we all just stipulate that TSA Administrator John Pistole made a bad choice when he announced earlier this year that small knives, defined as having blades “no more than 2.36 inches or 6 cm in length – from tip to where it meets the handle or hilt,” would be OK on flights?

Maybe he got bad PR advice, or maybe he just didn’t get the symbolism. After all, the 9/11 terrorists, who started all this hypersensitivity at airports, brought down the Twin Towers and part of the Pentagon using small box cutters, which are a lot like little knives.

Flight attendants, pilots, their unions, and soon lots of members of Congress came down on Pistole like tea party members at an IRS conference. On Wednesday he agreed to back off.

But did he have to back off of everything?

I’m fine with leaving the Swiss Army knife at home. But while I can’t speak for all occasional air travelers, may I suggest many of us believe safety and common sense do not have to be mutually exclusive? Isn’t there a middle road here between what Pistole announced earlier and what we’re now apparently left with.

Lacrosse sticks? Would these ever be the weapons of choice in a confined cabin? Really?

And while we’re on the subject, do we have to frisk 6-year-old girls? Must we pat down babies?

And for heaven’s sake, could we think of a way to keep 50-year-old John Brennan from ever again taking all his clothes off to protest invasive screening, whatever rule change we may need to impose?

I won’t begin sweating or shifting my eyes from side to side if I know the TSA no longer feels it necessary to inspect a 95-year-old woman’s diaper before letting her be wheeled aboard a flight to see family in Michigan, the way they did two years ago in Florida.

But then, if I did sweat and shift my eyes I would be a sure target for the TSA’s behavioral detection program.

Or maybe not. An audit released by The Department of Homeland Security said it really couldn’t tell whether this program, in which 2,800 agents get chatty with people and try to guess whether they’re hiding something, really works. That’s because, until recently the 6-year-old program had no way to measure its success and lacked any sort of comprehensive training.

It was, however, capable of spending $878 million.

Security expert Bruce Schneier once told Vanity Fair, “The only useful airport security measures since 9/11 were locking and reinforcing the cockpit doors, so terrorists can’t break in, positive baggage matching,” or guarding against people not flying along with their luggage, “and teaching the passengers to fight back. The rest is security theater.”

I’m not sure I’d go as far as that, especially after reading a report in May that TSA agents found a record 65 firearms in one week, including a loaded .22 caliber pistol inside a boot strapped to a man’s prosthetic leg at Salt Lake International Airport. At least he didn’t also have a plastic baseball bat.

Of course we need airport security. We just need it to be measurably effective, accountable and based on common sense.

Jay Evensen is associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his web site, www.jayevensen.com.

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