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Keeping Our Airlines Safe

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Going through airport security these days has become a nightmare. Periodically, we hear stories of poor passengers forced to endure hours of screening. Nicholas and Mary Monahan know all too well what security these days can entail. They thought they would be going on a quick flight to a friend's wedding, but instead they went through an awful ordeal which lasted weeks. Though she was pregnant, Mary was still subjected to extensive tests, including ones where security workers touched her breasts and inspected under her skirt for. Nicholas, the husband was enraged by this treatment, and when he raised his voice to protest, he was arrested and thrown in a cell. Finally released after several hours, Nicholas was banned from Portland International Airport for 90 days, and made to pay a fine. The rationale for any of this behavior from the authorities is still not clear.

This is an admittedly extreme example. But it should give any reasonable person qualms. Of course, airline security is critical; in the wake of September 11, every possible precaution must be taken. The National Transportation Security Agency has thus instituted several new measures which are supposed to protect us. These include banning items such as liquids and gels. Later the agency loosened some of these regulations in the face of continued criticism. Every passenger must still have his items examined by an x-ray machine and walk through a metal detector. Certain passengers are subjected to additional screening if they set off an alarm, or if a security officer deems it necessary. There are also new agents who search passengers who exhibit "suspicious behavior." The government has obviously put these bans in place to keep America safe. But the question remains whether the new steps actually accomplish this goal.

The ban on gels and liquids was miserable for passengers, and it did not appreciably improve security. Passengers who wanted hand sanitizer or bottled water were not able to take them on the plane. Thankfully, these bans have been eased as of September 26, though passengers still face restrictions. Apparently the government finally realizes that grandmothers and their shampoo are not a threat to our nation. Until X-ray machines that can reliably spot dangerous liquids are put into widespread use, all security officers can do is limit the amount of liquids travelers bring, which is what they are currently doing.

More troubling are the agents who are supposed to track passengers based on their suspicious behavior. TSA agent Carl Maccario says of behavior profiling that "It is like throwing a big fishing net over the side of the boat: You catch what you catch," He adds that "hopefully within that net is a terrorist." This is precisely the problem. Too many innocent people are being unduly hassled for no benefit. At Dulles airport in Washington DC, several hundred people were subjected to a more intense security screening based on nothing more than the arbitrary suspicion of an agent. Around 50 were turned over to police for an intense interrogation. Not one turned out to be a terrorist. This is a clear example of a program that does not work. Trying to find people who are terrorists based on how nervous they look is like trying to find a needle in a haystack. A person might be nervous because of an impending midterm in college, or having to give a public speech. This layer of screening raises baseless suspicions and produces no results at the same time it erodes innocent passengers' civil liberties. Any one us could be unduly pulled aside and subjected to a police interrogation and search. More substantial measures are clearly needed.

These measures have irksome implications as well. If it is okay to try and profile people based on certain behaviors they exhibit, then what else should authorities be able to profile for? The most natural extension would be racial profiling. This is a contentious issue, but the practice has many advocates. They feel that focusing on certain groups which are more likely to commit terrorist acts would keep the country safer. Some feel that racial profiling is already occurring in US airports. King Downing, a black man and the national coordinator of the ACLU's campaign against racial profiling was stopped in Boston's Logan airport. He claims that there were no grounds for authorities to stop him, and that he was singled out solely because of his race. He has since filed a lawsuit.

Racial profiling has no place in airports. It is not morally justifiable to treat certain segments of the populations different from others. Supporters of racial profiling argue that some racial groups are statistically more likely to commit acts of terrorism. Even though this is the case, one should always remember that it is an infinitesimally small percentage of these groups committing such acts. It is simply unacceptable to make all members of a group wear the scarlet letter for the sins of a few. Even from a strategic perspective, racial profiling is a horrendous idea. If Al Qaeda sees America watching for Arabs in airports, then it could well decide to send white Muslims such as John Walker Lindh into the country. No one would think to watch such a person carefully, since he is white with an American sounding name. The results here would be catastrophic: someone who means the country harm would be potentially able to perpetrate crimes of mass destruction against the populace. At best, racial profiling would polarize the American public, and distract us from important issues regarding security.

That would be unfortunate because smart security measures could almost assure that American airlines are never subjected to terrorist attacks again. Here El Al, the Israeli national airline provides us with an example of some good security measures to take. El Al subjects all passengers to a series of questions, not just random ones who happen to exhibit some sort of "suspicious" behavior. Agents trained in the art of psychological analysis then evaluate the passengers' behavior during the questioning. The information gleaned from the interview is sent to international crime-fighting agencies such as Scotland Yard. Aboard the plane, all pilots are ex members of the Israeli air force who have been trained in handling weapons and hand-to-hand combat. And at least two air marshals travel on every flight. They are well trained, and licensed to kill. El Al planes are guarded 24 hours a day, even during cleaning and maintenance. These methods have worked. No hijacking has happened since 1968.

Adopting these common sense measures can make airline travel safe. We have air marshals, but unlike in Israel, they are not required to pass advanced marksmanship tests, and they only undergo 5 weeks of training. Planes are not kept under watch 24 hours a day and all pilots are not trained to fight back against someone trying to storm the cockpit. Taking steps to do all of these things would bolster airline security without requiring us to use unfair methods such as racial profiling. One of the problems is that we simply are not spending anywhere near the amount of money on security that Israel spends. The government should pick up the tab here and pay for the necessary measures. Critics contend that adopting such methods costs too much money. But I submit that no amount of money is too much to keep America safe from terrorism.
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Marcus Alexander Gadson is a freelance journalist and commentator. He has written articles on various issues including foreign policy, race, economics, and politics for publications including the Huffington Post, the Daily Voice, and the (more...)

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