It’s not racism or bigotry but common sense to pay special attention to certain travelers. Have you stood in an airport security line waiting for screening and wondered how effective the procedures were? After a recent overseas trip to Israel and several domestic flights, my wife and I do more than wonder: We worry.
The Department of Homeland Security and its component – the Transportation Security Administration – have strengthened security at airports since Sept. 11. But America still needs major changes in philosophy, screening and onboard security before our airports and planes are as safe as Israeli ones.
The Israelis became the first victims of Middle Eastern aviation terrorism when an El Al flight from Rome was hijacked in 1968. Strong security measures have prevented a single El Al plane from being seized since, and no commercial airliner leaving Israeli airports has ever been taken over.
How does Israel do it? The first answer lies in philosophy. Israeli procedures concentrate more on identifying people who are threats than things that are threats. That makes them more proactive than US protocols, which remain largely reactive.
Israeli security staff appear better trained and more alert than American staff. They earn better salaries and have higher educational levels. We noticed that whereas TSA personnel often chat with one another at checkpoints, Israeli personnel focus consistently on evaluating the passengers.
When we passed through security at La Guardia Airport in New York, TSA staff were so engrossed in their own conversation that no one watched the X-ray monitor for onboard luggage. The line ground to a brief halt until an agent noticed and resumed scrutiny of the screen.
In contrast, multiple layers of El Al security began with several rings of armed personnel and progressed to individual interviews by questioners trained to notice body language as well as verbal answers. Such vigilance detected the threat posed by Anne-Marie Murphy, a 32-year-old Irish woman at Heathrow airport in 1986.
Without her knowledge, her fiancee – a Palestinian terrorist – had hidden in her carry-on bag a bomb designed to explode in flight and kill 375 passengers, including Anne-Marie.
TSA staff would have trouble stopping such a plot not only because of the greater number of passengers that they must cope with, but also because federal rules prohibit profiling, a technique that is widely used abroad.
Yet all 19 terrorists on the Sept. 11 flights were Middle Eastern males in their 20s and 30s. It is not racism or bigotry but common sense to pay special attention to such travelers. As an Israeli acquaintance sardonically said, “We Israelis want to stop terrorists, but you Americans want to be politically correct.”
Harsh words, but they make you think.
They do so particularly because Israeli screening for weapons and dangerous devices succeeds better than our own. The TSA’s figures show that in 2002 American screeners missed 70 percent of knives and 60 percent of false explosives sent through X-ray machines by testers.
Improvement is slow. NBC News reported last year that federal agents smuggled materials needed to make homemade bombs through security checks at 21 airports. Six months ago, the Newark Star-Ledger reported that 20 out of 22 weapons got by screeners at Newark’s Liberty International Airport.
Onboard security provides a third area for improvement. All El Al flights have reinforced steel doors at the cockpit, and those doors remain locked while any passengers are on the plane. In contrast, the doors remain wide open during boarding of most US flights. And all Israeli flights carry more sky marshals than American ones.
Finally, the Israeli procedures make obvious sense to the public and are carried out with more politeness than we routinely experience in American airports. Nor did we hear the shouting there that we routinely do in our own country.
Without improvements, our system will produce more absurdities like the hour-long detention in June of former Secret Service officer Monica Emmerson. She annoyed TSA personnel by spilling water from her toddler’s sippy cup at Reagan International Airport in Washington. TSA insisted that she clean it up as well as go through their procedures all over again and so missed her flight.
It’s hard to see how that made our skies any safer.
(Originally appeared in the Detroit News)