Stop Granny’s Pat-Down

Boston Herald

John Pistole, the head of the Transportation Security Administration, recently told The Atlantic in an interview that “we’ll never eliminate risk” of terrorist attacks on aviation.

He’s right, which is why the TSA’s policy of treating everyone as an equal risk is so misguided. It has led to the outrages of the past few weeks and the public backlash against the TSA. We need to scuttle the TSA’s equal-risk policy in favor of one that concentrates on genuine potential risks.

Pistole sounds reasonable, presenting the TSA’s current policies as the best we can do in trying circumstances.

The trouble is in the policy’s application. The individual performance of TSA officers is highly variable.

The case of the “Baywatch” actress singled out for additional screening is particularly interesting for the TSA’s response. An agency spokesman said that “people who are celebrities shouldn’t be surprised if and when they’re recognized.” This makes no sense. If they’re recognized as not terrorists, then why should they have to go through enhanced security without additional information that they may be a threat? Perhaps terrorist “chatter” that day suggested that a former “Baywatch” star might be planning a mid-air atrocity, but I seriously doubt it.

To end these outrages and to bring accountability back to airport screening, the TSA’s monopoly as a nationalized screening industry must end. A 2007 study for the TSA found that private screeners consistently outperformed the TSA bureaucrats, so the TSA suppressed it, earning the agency censure from the Government Accountability Office. Airports should be allowed to opt out of the federal system and hire their own screeners, who will be more responsive to customers, and must comply with federal regulations.

In addition, to cut down on lines and speed up the process, certain categories of passengers should be given a degree of dispensation from screening. As international security guru Edward Luttwak put it, “easily recognizable groups that not even the most ingenious terrorists could simulate” should not be viewed as equal in risk to other groups or individuals. Examples include “touring senior citizens traveling together (a category that contains a good portion of all American, European and East Asian tourist traffic), airline flying personnel who come to the security gate as a crew, families complete with children.”

As Luttwak suggests, the critical question would be whether members of those groups “recognize each other as such.”

Another solution would be the institution of a robust frequent-traveler system that would enable members who undergo extensive background checks to bypass security, or at the very least not have to remove shoes and belts before going through. Airlines, which employ up to 150 people each to run their frequent flyer schemes, could be given this responsibility to avoid it becoming yet another government bureaucracy.

In the end, detecting terrorists at the airport could become more like detecting shoplifters. It would lead to an unpleasant experience for the guilty and a pleasurable experience for the rest of us. It might even attract people back on to planes and reassure us that the federal government can read the Fourth Amendment. Even John Pistole might see the benefits of that.

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