Airport Security

News of an evil terrorist plot to blow up airplanes en route to America from London with liquid explosives smuggled onboard has inspired a new set of enhanced security regulations at our airports. Passengers must now place all liquids and gels in their checked luggage. Items such as shampoo, contact lens solution, and toothpaste must be stowed in the belly of the plane, where, the thinking goes, potential mass murderers can’t access flammable ingredients in-flight.

Adapting with surprising alacrity, air travelers have learned to pack their hair products and lip gloss along with their underwear, and not to bring their morning coffee to the gate. Security lines are only slightly longer and slower than before the latest directive, and fewer people are being asked to dispose of their perfume and deodorant.

But the grin-and-bear-it determination American fliers have shown with each successive impingement on their freedom to travel can’t mask the fact that no amount of regulations can stop a terrorist attack. Only intelligence can.

The Transportation Security Administration, which staffs the previously unemployed people who tell you to remove your shoes and display your boarding pass, is responsible for screening millions of airplane passengers (and their luggage) every week. Even with the brute power of tens-of-thousands of uniformed personnel digging through carry-on bags and, glassy-eyed, watching x-ray images scroll across a computer monitor, the well-intentioned federal employees responsible for our air safety are little more than a nicely dressed charade. There are too many people and bags; it’s impossible to screen them all effectively, even with the enormous amount of manpower devoted to the cause. Since the latest directive came down, I personally know three people who (unwittingly) brought onboard prohibited items. And in the case of one fellow, his bag was searched by hand.

Does the presence of so many (modestly trained) checkers deter terrorists from hijacking or destroying American airplanes? Probably. But given the nature of the threat, which is amorphous, unpredictable, and inscrutable, the TSA is compelled to deploy staff at dozens of places where they’re not needed — except as costly showpieces. For example, despite Southwest Airlines’ claim that their 737s are a “symbol of freedom,” Pakistani and Saudi terrorists, we conjecture, aren’t much interested in flights from Burbank to San Jose, or Austin to Albuquerque.

Or are they? This is where intelligence pays the greatest dividends. The low-skilled laborers who paw through your luggage don’t foil terrorist attacks. Terrorists are defeated by information.

The September 11, 2001 attacks, we now know, were being tracked (and predicted) by different elements in our intelligence apparatus. There was a breakdown in communication, and the horrible calamity ensued. Since then, the people responsible for listening in on terrorist conversations and infiltrating their cells have spoiled numerous plots, many of which the American public probably has no inkling. With apologies to the thousands of men and women who proudly wear the TSA emblem and conscientiously ask if you have a laptop in your carry-on bag, knowing what the enemy is planning is our greatest defense.

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