After the September 11th disaster, no right thinking person can object to our government's massive anti-terrorist initiatives, particularly in airports. Even the most militant civil libertarians fly, and have to hope that the inconvenience, sometimes bordering on harassment, required getting to and through airports substantially reduces the risk of future hijackings and mass murder.
As we fly several times each month, however, I am becoming convinced much of the new pre-flight protocol and many if not most of the individuals responsible for enforcing it are at best not up to the task, and at worse, hopeless. We are entrusting our lives to questionable procedures operated by poorly trained people, ill equipped to deal with international terrorism.
A good example is the new checkpoints required to drive into the Grand Rapids Airport. While the largest city in Western Michigan, and the center of the world's office furniture business, Grand Rapids would not give a suicide bomber many worthwhile targets. However, Chicago and Detroit are only 30 minutes by plane, so it might make sense for a terrorist to board in Grand Rapids if his objective was The Sears Tower. This may be the reason that all cars are stopped before approaching the terminal and asked where they are going and again before parking or returning a rental for an inspection. My observation after experiencing four inspections in the last couple of months, is that they are largely worthless. In every case the inspector looks inside the car, opens and closes the trunk. In no case did anyone look under the car, in any of the bags in the trunk, in the wheel well, or under the rug. Are there any terrorists dumb enough to leave explosives or an AK47 in plain sight?
In Ft. Lauderdale after checking bags and going through security, we purchased small round four-slice pizzas. The condiment counter offered plastic forks but no plastic knives. We were told the FAA no longer allowed them. On board we were served lunch. For utensils, a steel four-pronged fork, and a plastic knife. Apparently the FAA regulation didn't apply in the air space between Ft. Lauderdale and Chicago. From my perspective, the fork in the hands of a 200-pound man is clearly a deadly weapon. The normal serrated stainless steel knife in my experience can barely cut lettuce and would be totally worthless as a weapon, except, perhaps as a club.
Exiting Nassau for Miami recently we cleared U.S. customs before boarding the plane. There were no X-ray machines but the official indicated she wanted to search my wife's carryon baggage, which she did by haphazardly patting a few assorted panties and blouses, in one of the two bags. She opened none of the cosmetic or jewelry pouches and passed completely on bag number two. I was given a free ride in spite of looking vastly more sinister than my sweet wife.
The following week flying out of O'Hare, for the first time one of the X-ray inspectors fell asleep and had to be nudged by another to restart the line. We were wanded by a person who spoke no English. A week later in the same United security line, my briefcase passed out from under the X-ray, but did not clear the hood. The operator stopped the line and began yelling for a baggage check. I asked if I could reach in for my bag as it was not in question. The operator shouted, "nail clippers, nail clippers". I couldn't explain that if there was a nail clipper it was not in my bag. Another inspector reached in and got me going. It's difficult to accept that seizing massive quantities of nail clippers makes the world safer. Consider the potential for damage of a large buckled belt, or a stout collapsible umbrella, and the nail clipper looks pretty silly.
After putting an expensive butane lighter in the standard plastic tub along with keys, pens, glass, etc. in perhaps a dozen airport security lines with no question, I was told recently that my lighter was being confiscated. The FAA had banned refillable butane lighters, as they are potentially a bomb. Security refused to take my name and address, nor would they send me my lighter even if I gave them an envelope with appropriate postage. The only course of action was to have put the lighter in a checked bag which had long since left for the plane. As I had carried this lighter on the same flight a few weeks earlier, I got angry. I mentioned that this was the same airport in which a guy had cleared four guns and a knife just a few days earlier. Two machine gun toting guards suggested I keep my mouth shut or a plane ride was not in my future. "A supervisor" explained non-refillable butane lighters and the old Zippo type fluid lighters were OK.
My next flight, I placed a new Zippo in the tub and was told that I could keep the case after the insides were confiscated. No one believed that I had been directed by personnel at the same airport to buy one. It appears that we are committing billions of dollars and an army of people at an enemy we can't identify, in the belief that if we confiscate enough nail clippers and Zippo lighters we will discourage Bin Laden's disciples.
For fifty years almost every guy who carried a pocketknife, carried it on the plane. Was one ever used as a weapon in a successful hijacking? Martial arts experts can kill people with their hands or their feet. Sodium, undetectable by X-ray, when mixed with water explodes. Acid can be carried in an aftershave container. While there may be some psychological deterrent in publicly undressing a college professor and examining his shoes, there appears no method foolproof, or otherwise, to protect the public. Fortunately, the number of crazies willing to blow themselves up in the name of Jihad are limited and most share common associations well known to the authorities. Tim McVeigh, however, homegrown, successfully accomplished the worst act of domestic terrorism prior to September 11th with fertilizer and motor oil.
It appears that we are committing too many dollars to put guns in the hands of young National Guardsmen who hopefully will never have to fire them and are not really part of the nail clipper detecting process. Nothing short of a national identity card would ostensibly protect the seller of airline tickets if it weren't possible to forge one or recruit an otherwise stalwart citizen to a terrorist movement.
My regrettable conclusion is that nothing we are doing is anywhere near enough to stop anthrax mailers, suicide bombers, or explosive making militiamen. Northern Ireland, Lebanon, the Middle East, and Afghanistan have not been, and may never be, fixed.
It would seem preferable to spend $38 billion annually to find a way, without violating our Constitution, to know more about the people we allow into our country and onto our airplanes, than whether they have Zippo lighters or nail clippers.