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A pat-down is better than a blowup, but we could do better
By CAROLINE BAUM
December 4, 2010
Imagine my horror when I read that two male Transportation Security
Administration agents had singled out Orlando passenger Eliana Sutherland
for further airport screening because of the size of her breasts.
As a woman, I was offended, outraged, disgusted -- not to mention jealous.
What does Eliana have that I don't have? No TSA agent has ever singled me
out because of the size and shape of my breasts or any other body part.
All the outrage about full body scans and pat-downs seems off the point.
What's the alternative? Yes, we could do it smarter (TSA, please contact
Israel's Shin Bet immediately). Absent that, the latest techniques beat getting
blown up in an airplane at 30,000 feet.
The objection to a full body scan from a vocal 15 percent of the populace,
according to a CBS Poll, seems lame. It's hard to imagine the grainy images -about as racy as an X-ray -- arousing anyone when far more graphic material
is available at a newsstand in most airports.
The TSA employs 56,000 people and has a budget of $8.2 billion, with $5.5
billion going toward airport security and screening. Airlines take security
precautions as well. How many potential terrorists have been snagged by
asking travelers, "Did you pack your own bags?" If you answered zero, you
would be correct. What about, "Has anyone asked you to carry anything
aboard this aircraft?" (Yes, and that ticking sound is driving me nuts!) One
wonders what these employees would do if the passenger answered "no" in
the first instance and "yes" in the second. Probably ask a supervisor.
In the same way the United States enacts new regulations to make sure the
last financial crisis doesn't happen again, it excels at preventing a recurrence
of the last terrorist attack. We haven't had another shoe bomber since
Richard Reid attempted to blow up a plane in 2002 because we dutifully
remove our shoes before going through security. But the TSA couldn't quite
bring itself to institute strip searches after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried
to light up the skies last Christmas with a pair of explosive-packed Jockey
Could we do smarter security? Of course. We could learn a few things from
the Israelis, maybe even outsource airport security to the Shin Bet, Israel's
domestic security agency, which is charged with protecting El Al, the national
airline. Ben-Gurion International Airport outside Tel Aviv has been
recognized as the safest in the world. By the time passengers arrive at the
airport, Israeli security agents know who they're looking for. The screening
process begins when a ticket is booked.
Israel employs ethnic profiling, spending more time interviewing a young
Arab male with a one-way ticket paid for in cash than an elderly Jewish
grandmother or Hebrew University students off on a summer holiday.
Muslim Arabs may be singled out unfairly, but they're the ones committed to
the destruction of the Jewish state. It's this same group -- albeit a small
minority -- that's targeting the United States.
Another thing: Israeli security agents are highly trained military veterans.
They aren't looking for box cutters, toe nail scissors or liquid explosives.
Israel's strategy is to "find the bomber, not the bomb," as the saying goes.
Practical necessity trumps political correctness. El Al has at least one
plainclothes armed marshal on all its flights. In 30 years it can boast a perfect
record of no hijackings or hijacking attempts.
Israel has clearly figured out what works in a small nation surrounded by
enemies. With two airports and 50 flights a day, it's easier to manage than
our 450 airports and thousands of daily flights. Still I'm sure we would
benefit from our Middle East ally's experience under fire.
Caroline Baum is author of "Just What I Said."