Charles Dharapak, ASSOCIATED PRESS
In this Jan. 7, 2012 file photo, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., son of Republican presidential candidate, Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, campaigns for his father at Windham High School in Windham, N.H. Paul says he was stopped briefly by security at the Nashville airport, Monday, Jan. 23, 2012, when a scanner found an "anomaly" on his knee.

What do a 95-year-old woman in a wheelchair, a 6-year-old girl and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky have in common? Each has been detained at an airport and asked to submit to an invasive pat-down by workers operating under the presumption they might be terrorists.

One more question: Who is Farid Seif? He is an Iranian-American businessman who didn't notice until retrieving his bags after landing last year that he had carried a snub nosed "baby" Glock handgun with him the whole way, undetected by security.

Many Americans have taken comfort from the knowledge that, as a general principle, laws apply equally in this country regardless of station or position. But airport security, with its presumption of guilt, is not the place where everyone should be treated the same. A senator is unlikely to threaten an airplane. The same can be said about 6-year-old girls and elderly people in wheelchairs. The Transportation Safety Agency can treat everyone the same or it can be smart and effective; it can't be both.

Paul was attempting to board a flight this week in Nashville, Tenn., when he set off a scanner. According to accounts, he offered to go through the scanner again, but screeners insisted he submit to a pat-down. After what appears to have been an argument, he was escorted to a separate area, where he says he was "detained" until he missed his flight. TSA officials deny he was detained, but he clearly was not free to leave, given that he eventually was escorted out of the area by police.

No doubt many people would hail the fact that prominent or famous people are not treated differently than ordinary folks during the screening process. They are missing the point. The TSA exists to protect people as they use the airways, which are essential to the modern economy. They do not exist to provide some sort of civics lesson. Treating everyone the same leaves the system vulnerable to people who will slip through undetected while agents are preoccupied with people who obviously pose no risk.

Routine audits have exploited the weaknesses in this system. An ABC News report last year said a random test in Newark in 2006 failed to detect concealed bombs and guns 20 out of 22 times. A 2007 audit in Los Angeles found inspectors missed such items 50 out of 70 times. Staring at routine items such as hairbrushes, cameras and phone chargers on an X-ray screen can be mind-numbing. The system is not designed for success.

Meanwhile, the TSA has grown into a bureaucracy that employs more than 65,000 people, and that a recent House majority report said intimidates airport managers into rejecting partnerships with private entities to help with screening.

Congress should force the TSA to be accountable, demanding certain performance standards in audits. It should encourage private competition for security contracts and demand better training. Sen. Paul's experience was not regrettable because he is a powerful politician. It was regrettable because it was a waste of time.