(Posted from The Publeconomist, published 12/30/09)
Can our TSA employees be as effective as Israel's airport security teams? If you need a refresher in Israeli airport security, check out this great article by Cathal Kelly, posted today on the Toronto Star's website. The article examines how Israel has been effectively dealing with heightened airport security for fifty years.
As I'm sure you're aware, Israel is a constant hotbed for terrorism, and Israeli airports aren't any exception. Mr. Kelly's article explains how Israeli security teams have managed to both make airports safer and reduce long airport lines.
I travel pretty often (14 flights in December and expecting the same for January!), and I detest long airport lines. I also detest airport security checkpoints that are poorly planned. Take Philadelphia Airport's security checkpoint at the A Terminal (Domestic). The lines are all bunched together, and zig-zag in close proximity until splitting off into a number of x-ray belts. This design could turn out to be a nightmare if some bomber decided to detonate while in line, fearing their chances for passing through security.
Mr. Kelly's article also explains how Israeli security personnel look for "bad guys" by reading the <em>people</em> who pass through their airports, rather than what's on the scanner.
And doesn't that make sense? I don't know about you, but there are numerous times when I've seen an old grandmom who doesn't even know to put her shoes in the security bin get bothered by TSA agents. One morning, when flying from Boston to New York City, I was even pulled aside by a goon who demanded my carry-on luggage be checked. After ripping apart the contents of my bag and wasting my time, he finally decided that I was cleared to continue. And I knew it was coming, too, after receiving nasty looks from him while I was in line to scan my belongings.
The contrast between the Israeli method and the TSA method is striking, and raises an important dilemma that's probably more true in race-sensitive America than it is in Israel. If TSA agents are told to stop worrying about belts and 3oz liquids, and instead focus on profiling travelers, will our country explode in a racial debate that will cripple the opportunities for progress?
I can see it now: a single, black Muslim, born abroad but permanently residing in the US, is hassled at a large airport (say, JFK) by two white TSA agents. Maybe he looked suspicious from the moment he entered the airport. Regardless, a lawsuit ensues, and the TSA is suddenly blamed for racial profiling. It's claimed that they wasted this man's time, caused him to miss (or nearly miss) his flight, all because of his last name, his beard, his skin color, or all of the above.
How would America handle this?
A creepy terrorist is a creepy terrorist, regardless of color. Timothy McVeigh didn't look like someone I'd want to have over for dinner. However, the fact that our recent "war on terrorism" has been almost primarily with Muslims <em>must</em> leave an impression on airport security agents.
As airport security tightens within the United States, and airports seek better security methods, I'll be intrigued to see if we apply some lessons from Isreali airports. And, if the TSA begins to monitor travelers the way that Israeli security personnel do, then I hope it's done in a way that targets the bad guys, and not just anyone named Mohammed. Success will largely depend on TSA agents themselves, and whether they're equipped to read people. This sort of work seems more fit for educated people with military experience than for a former mall cop who plays on Facebook while shouting "take your belts off!" to travelers.
I do have faith in our government that they will make air travel safer. I just wonder whose model will be applied, and how America will react to the changes.
Anthony DiFiore, Publisher
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