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Airline Security

In the summer of 2004 Patrick Smith, who writes the Ask The Pilot column at Salon.com and who is an airline pilot himself, briefly commended Representative John Mica, Congressman from Florida and chairman of the House Subcommittee on Aviation, for speaking out against the silliness of the “…zero-tolerance obsession with, as I like to call them, weapons of mass distraction” the banning of “potential weapons” like nail clippers, jewelers screwdrivers, butter knives, forks and the like from aircraft cabins.

This has been a pet peeve of mine ever since the rules were tightened after 9/11: I believe it makes us less safe rather than more. I wrote this to Mr. Smith to thank him for bringing at least one voice of sanity to the public discourse.

30 July 2004

Thanks to you and to Rep. Mica for taking a public stance in favor of what I have been saying privately to anyone who would listen (and have avoided saying in front of anyone — like TSA or airline employees — who might have the opportunity to misinterpret it as some kind of veiled threat and overreact): that banning all potential weapons from airplanes is not only stupid it is counterproductive.

During the past two years I lived in New Hampshire and worked in California, so I have spent a great deal of time on airplanes crossing the continent. From the beginning I have contended that many of the security procedures adopted after 9/11 added to my (incredibly small) risk of being the victim of terrorism rather than decreasing it. For instance, during one period I flew Northwest airlines in one direction and Continental airlines in the other because of scheduling constraints; although it was arranged as a round-trip ticket through their code-sharing arrangement, it showed up as two one-way tickets in the computer — so I was hand-searched at the gate every time. I figured out why it was happening; did they think terrorists couldn’t — and wouldn’t, given their insensitivity to scheduling constraints, change their ticketing behavior accordingly? I contended it made me less safe since the screeners spent their resources screening me rather than some other potential terrorist.

In particular, the banning of any potential weapon (butter knives and forks!) from the plane accomplishes nothing but increasing the brittleness of the security system. It is great if the system is perfect and catches all possible threats. But, if it is merely very good, then occasionally someone can slip something through — and, in that case, the security system has pretty much guaranteed they will be the only ones on board with a weapon. There will be no fall-back security, no one else who can challenge them. I would feel much more secure knowing everyone on board was armed with a pocket knife, a minimal but potentially effective weapon of last resort, than trusting that the security system had managed to keep everyone weapon-free.

If this only mattered for screening on airliners it would probably amount to no more than an inconvenience and a small incremental danger to a few passengers. But it seems to represent a more general trend: increased control and centralized security measures superseding distributed security measures; more trust in authorities to keep everyone safe and less trust in individuals to shoulder some responsibility (and to be allowed the tools to implement that responsibility) for their own security — security in the broadest sense, including not only personal safety but financial, social, and interpersonal security as well. It is consistent with much of modern political and social practice: we will cede our responsibility, along with our freedom, to some authority which will promise, in return, to keep us safe and happy.

It is bad enough when that authority is a church or a neighborhood association or a corporate entity; at least that is voluntary. But, when that authority is a government, then those who make that choice cede my freedoms and yours along with theirs.

Keep making noise. Perhaps eventually someone rational will listen.

© Copyright 2004, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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