Monday, March 07, 2005

Political Correctness Doesn't Kill - Impatience and Arrogance Do

Captain's Quarters cites an MSNBC story about Michael Tuohey, the airport screener seen, on a recently released security tape, passing 9/11 hijackers Mohammed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari through security at Portland International Jetport. Second-guessing himself, Tuohey recalls passing Atta and Alomari even though he had qualms because Atta looked like "an Arab terrorist".

Captain Ed blames political correctness, at least in part, for the ensuing horror, and notes that PC is still de rigeur among Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners. Having trained TSA screeners across the country in 2002, I have to disagree with the Captain on this one. Sure, Tuohey cites PC, but the fact is that even had he subjected Atta and Alomari to full searches, the box cutters they used on the plane were not on the prohibited items list. Tuohey wouldn't have been justified in confiscating them.

The reason the box cutters were legal is that, pre-9/11, the airlines had a great deal of clout in deciding what was and wasn't excessively inconvenient for their passengers. Also, private security companies whose screeners were too officious and held up passengers too long could find themselves without a contract. After all, as the major "stakeholders" at airports, airlines had a lot of input into which companies got hired to maintain security.

Airlines still have a lot of clout at airports. To airport managers, airlines represent income, while TSA screeners are part of the overhead. In fact, disputes pitting airlines and airport managers against TSA employees and procedures still go on all the time.

This is not to say that the airlines and airport managers are evil. They're trying to succeed in a highly competitive business with razor-thin profit margins. If a plane fails to "push" (pull away from the gate) on time it can mean unhappy passengers and lost revenue. It's natural for the airlines to want security lines to move quickly and efficiently. The TSA screeners are under great pressure to make sure that nothing gets by them, while at the same time making sure that passengers don't spend unreasonable amounts of time in line at the checkpoint.

Most passengers understand this. The ones who don't are usually "frequent fliers", the people so used to having their butts kissed by the airlines that they think the TSA screeners should genuflect to them when they enter the checkpoint. And we should definitely be profiling anyone who looks middle eastern. Business travelers and airlines have been lobbying for years now to institute what they call the "Trusted Traveler" program. Trusted Travelers would be investigated and issued special IDs to let them skip through security. My own opinion is that thousands of "Trusted Travelers" IDs are a huge loophole begging to be exploited by terrorists who could steal or forge the documents, not to mention target the "Trusted Travelers" themselves for kidnapping or coercion.

So long as certain passengers feel they shouldn't be screened at all, and others don't want to take off their shoes, Richard Reid notwithstanding, and many women don't want their bras searched, despite the twin crashes in Russia, airport screening is going to be problematic.

The Captain's post is, at least in part, a call for profiling in airport security. The trouble with profiling (outside of violating the equal protection clause) is that it establishes a pattern, which can be exploited by terrorists. If it's well known that young, middle eastern males are going to be scrutinized more closely than anyone else, then the terrorists are going to find an old female, or a radical young woman willing to put TNT in her baby's diaper, or an old man in a wheelchair...

The point is, to the TSA screeners, everyone is under suspicion until they pass security screening. That's the way it should be.