FRED WOLFERMAN: Ugly World: Passenger Profiling Is the Least of Our Worries
After watching the chaos at airports everywhere for the next couple of days on the news, we were afraid the trip home would be a nightmare of lines and delays. We needn't have been.
We arrived at San Francisco International a couple of hours early, having already decided to check everything -- no carry-on at all, except for books. There was no line at the curbside check-in, so for just two bucks a bag, plus tip (after a not-too-subtle "That's eight bucks for the company," from the counter guy), we were in the terminal.
We went straight to security, expecting the worst. There were maybe 10 people in line for four scanning machines. The first guy, the one who looks at your boarding pass and picture, was a smiling fellow who spoke broken English and couldn't pronounce my name. Well, OK, it's sort of a funny name.
Then came the floor show. There was another guy, who spoke no English at all, doing pirouettes around the floor, pointing people here and there while wearing a handsome pair of baby blue gloves. He pointed at hats, coats, shoes, and anything else he wanted you to remove. He did a great take-off-your-jacket demonstration, sort of a heroic shrug with a nice dip at the knees.
The highlight was raising an arm, making a circling motion under the armpit with the other hand and crossing both arms across the chest. No deodorant.
All very entertaining, perhaps, but not necessarily inspiring much confidence in safety.
We were through in three or four minutes, and sat at the gate reading for the next hour and a half.
As soon as we had boarded and buckled up, we noticed the guy in the next seat stowing a bottle of water. Forbidden liquid water.
My wife, a stickler for rules, probably because she usually makes them, asked if he had carried it on. She is too polite to say "You jerk, you're not supposed to have that," and call the attendant.
He said he had, and it was OK. I guess it was, because he drank it and didn't blow up.
If all this represents the dreaded heightened security that so inconveniences travelers and deters terrorists, somebody who makes these rules ought to fly once in a while.
There has never been much logic to the system. The way you are handled depends on whether you are dealing with someone rational or a petty bureaucrat, and how tired and frustrated he or she is.
Don't talk. Show your ID. Take off your shoes. Shuffle through. Five-year-old kid, great-grandmother, swarthy 20-year-old in fatigues speaking Arabic and sweating bullets -- all the same.
Enough political correctness, poor training and sloppy management. If we want to be serious about security, it's time for profiling.
The president called these people Islamic fascists, and he caught a lot of flak for it. "Don't tar all Muslims with the same brush," came the editorials. "They're not fascists, they're just impoverished and uneducated." Fine. Whatever they are, they want to kill us, and most of them are identifiable.
You don't see a lot of blond Swedes rioting in the streets. Where are the Lutheran fascists? You might back off on little old ladies, especially if there is a DAR convention in town.
The Israelis have been doing profiling for years. They look for people, not objects. They have trained screeners who ask very pointed questions based on the subject's appearance. I have read that this sort of discrimination would violate our current laws. Change them. It may rise to a constitutional level, but the only way to find out is to try it and go to court.
The only problem I have with the present system, as far as it goes, is the inconsistency with which it is applied; but even if it were perfectly managed, it makes no effort to identify likely suspects on a case-by-case basis. In fact, it goes out of its way not to, harassing obviously harmless passengers simply to show how fair it is.
I couldn't care less about fairness; I'm interested only in safety. If somebody is offended by a surfeit of attention, too bad. I realize people can't help their skin or hair color, and that may be a problem, but if they remain polite and cooperative, they should be fine.
There will be mistakes, there will be hard feelings, there will be legal tests. That is all better than planes blowing up or crashing into things.
It has become a very ugly world out there. Dancing inspectors aren't going to get the job done.
Fred Wolferman lives in Southern Pines. Contact him by e-mail at email@example.com
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