Are Some Passengers Safer Than Others?

The new leadership of the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is reassessing its rules regarding the screening of passengers in the nation’s airports. After its dogged insistence since 9/11 that objects with points or sharp edges (regardless of size) were a threat to aviation security, the TSA is now considering reversing itself, and recognizing that the mountain of pen knives and scissors it has confiscated were never really a hijacking threat. Even more astonishing is a plan to allow thousands of air travelers with the right employment pedigrees to pass onto to airliners with no screening at all as way to reduce screening costs and speed up the boarding process.

The TSA’s goals are commendable, but its approach to achieving them — if actually implemented as described by an Associated Press article that appeared in the Washington Post on August 14, 2005 — is a sure ticket to disaster. Security is not supposed to be either convenient or inexpensive. It is supposed to be an obstacle designed to reduce the risk of potential harm, and if doesn’t do that, it is likely to increase the risk of harm. For the reasons set forth below, the current TSA proposal needs further analysis.

The 9/11 hijackings might have been prevented had the nation had better intelligence, as is set forth in the 9/11 Commission Report. What we knew, when we knew it, and how we responded to it will continue to be debated. There can be no argument, however, that had the airliners involved been equipped with reinforced bulkhead doors that remained locked during the takeover attempt, the box cutters used as the weapons by the hijackers may have done a lot of damage in the passenger cabin, but the airliners would not have been hijacked.

Surely, after the installation of those doors by December 31, 2002 (assuming the time-table was met), the continued collection of assorted pen knives and scissors which has occupied so much of the time of the nation’s 50 thousand screeners was an unnecessary and expensive exercise, requiring time and money that should have been used to secure against the real threat: explosives. The TSA has known all along what it admits to know now: That blades under five inches in length, razors such as box cutters, scissors, and even martial arts throwing stars, and bows and arrows, do not present hijacking risks if carried in the cabin of an airliner. Indeed, brass knuckles, black-jacks, chukka-sticks, and handguns — which are prohibited from being carried by the public without special provisions of law — might also be said to present little threat of hijacking as long the flight deck remains sealed off.

Any analysis of the foreseeable risk of crime against commercial aviation will always come up with explosives as the primary threat. The time and effort expended in searching for and confiscating potentially dangerous items such as pocket knives or razors is unequal to the overall threat they present. As a general rule, that which is not designed exclusively as a weapon to cause physical injury to another can be possessed by the public under most circumstances, and airliners should reflect that rule as well.

Exceptions will exist in circumstances where, because of its size or use, the object presents a unique threat to safety and security in the confined and controlled environment of an airliner in flight. The history of threats to safety and security aboard airliners provides sufficient insight into what should be prohibited in the cabin, and those items should be treated accordingly. However, such screening should be considered separately from that which needs to be done to protect airliners from explosives, a threat which is unacceptable in passenger aviation.

The plan to allow potentially thousands of exceptions to the current rule that requires that all passengers, including flight crews, be screened presents a different issue. Security practitioners eschew exceptions to security procedures in general, and wholesale exceptions — as suggested by the TSA’s proposal to allow government officials in certain categories to by-pass security altogether — is certainly no exception. There is nothing inherently characteristic in public employment, whether elected or appointed, that makes individuals immune from the need for screening. Particularly when it comes to screening for explosives, the requirement that there be no exceptions must be inviolate.

The proposal that the all members of Congress, members of the Cabinet, state executives, federal judges, high ranking military personnel, individuals with Top Secret clearances, and airline pilots be exempted from screening is fraught with danger. To suggest that this broad category of individuals, often anonymous to the public, is impervious to the pressures of extortion faced by others in public and private life; or that they are immune from the judgment problems presented by neuro-psychological ailments; or they are not subject to identity theft; or, most importantly, that they are secure from having explosives placed unwittingly on their persons or in their carry-on items simply undermines the effort to protect the public from the risk of explosion. Whatever special accommodations that these individuals (in the opinion of Homeland Security) are entitled to, exemptions from screening for explosives should not be among them. The risk to the public is much greater than the limited benefit that would be gained by taking these relatively few passengers out of the queue now passing through the nation’s screening stations.

Many of the decisions made since 9/11 about how to best secure aviation from the threat of terrorism have been made with too little time for consideration and analysis, and too much concern for issues unrelated to the need to reasonably establish the best security available. From the selection of personnel to the purchase of equipment to the adoption of regulations, we have too often made the wrong choices. As we approach the fourth anniversary of 9/11, and still find ourselves in a world where the threat of terrorism against the West remains unabated, the need to follow sound principles of security is as vital as ever. At the same time, we must be cautious about creating additional exposure to safety and security risks unrelated to terrorism as we go about figuring out how to protect the public from the foreseeable risks of crime in general.

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