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Monday, January 04, 2010

Lockdown at Newark Airport

Rabbi Shmuely Boteach was sitting in Newark International Airport during Sunday night's lockdown, waiting for his wife and nine children to come off a flight from Chicago. While he was there, he scribbled a few words about airport security that got published at Huffington Post.
Let's state the obvious. They can install the most sophisticated machinery in every American airport. They can X-Ray our boxers, they can check for explosives in every bodily orifice. We're still not going to be safe. It's not only people's bodies you're supposed to check but their backgrounds, their nationalities, and especially their eyes. Israel has the most secure airport in the world. I cannot imagine for a moment that a man with nitroglycerine in his undies would ever have made it on a plane. And why? Because they would have asked him some simple and direct questions with the purpose of studying his reaction as he responded. You're from Nigeria. You're going to the US. Why? How long are you staying? What is your purpose? And where is your return ticket? All along they would be scrutinizing not his bodily bulges but his twitches. What Israel excels at is not even ethnic profiling so much as psychological profiling.

But how can we ever hope to study people's suspicious behavior when the TSA agents are wasting their precious time on the most innocent of passengers who don't fit any kind of terrorist profile whatsoever. On the way to Chicago last week my eleven-year-old daughter's backpack somehow merited secondary screening. For ten minutes a TSA agent performed about seven explosive swab tests on every knickknack a young girl might carry on a plane. Her reading books seemed to be of particular interest. I could only roll my eyes and pray for patience. While this went on approximately fifty adults passed through without any secondary screening because my eleven year old occupied the rapt attention of the TSA. Could this have gotten any more ridiculous?

The answer, unfortunately, is yes. I travel often. The degree of silliness I have witnessed is staggering. I have seen seventy-year-old grandmas with hip replacements being combed by two TSA agents (who knows what those surgeons implanted there!) I once saw an octogenarian man with a cane forced to remove his neck brace as it was repeatedly swabbed for explosives.

Good you say. Terrorists come in many forms. And if we principally look out for young men from known terrorist countries to carry explosives on planes, the terrorists will quickly adapt and activate their sleeper-agent Edith from Valley View Retirement Home to detonate the nitroglycerine hidden in her dentures. I concede that indeed there have been unsuspecting young women who have been given bombs by their terrorists boyfriends to bring on planes, which is why we have to absolutely check everyone. But airport security is never going to be omniscient. And you need to focus your energy on those who pose the greatest threat. Nationality is not any real predictor of terrorists. Richard Reid was a Briton who was half-Jamaican. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is not from the Middle East but Nigeria. Timothy McVeigh was an American. But these and nearly every other terrorist bomber was a male of a certain age group. None were eleven-year-olds with schoolwork stuffed in their backpacks who happened to be travelling with eight other siblings. Would it not therefore make sense to concentrate on those who most fit the terrorist profile while letting up on the three-year-olds with their toy tractors?

Here is where Israel has a unique opening. A country that routinely gets terrible press because of how effectively its enemies portray it as repressive can come to the West's rescue with sound advice on how to secure airport and air travel. In the process the West will gain a greater understanding of the level of threat Israel is up against. I'm surprised that Prime Minister Netanyahu has not already given a major address sympathizing with the American people for the intended attack on Christmas Day and offering Israel's assistance in securing American air travel. Israel, after all, often dispatches humanitarian rescue teams to various parts of the world after an earthquake or a tsunami. Why not immediately dispatch a high-level security team to Washington, DC, to advise an increasingly hapless Homeland Security Administration about the right way to deploy limited resources in securing a vast air network? I realize that Israel is a tiny country and has to secure only one major international airport. But then again, unlike the United States it lives surrounded by terrorists yet has an exemplary record in protecting air travel.
This makes a lot of sense. But come on Rabbi, you can't really believe that the Obama administration would take advice from little Israel, could you?

Read the whole thing.


At 10:19 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

The US has already set up limited profiling from countries with a predominantly Muslim population. But that is not going to be fail-safe because Islamists are going to find a way around it. The point is airport security can't be reactive. As fast as new security measures put in place, the terrorists are already looking ahead to find new loopholes to evade them.


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