The government's logical calculus on flight security has long been: Really Annoying equals Safe Plane. (Say you were a tribesman from a distant island and had never in your entire life seen a seat belt before. Don't you think you could figure it out?)
The FAA's new hijacker repellant is this: Passengers will now have to show boarding passes to get to the gates. This wily stratagem will stop cold any hijackers on suicide missions who forgot to buy airline tickets.
It's times like this that I get down on my knees and thank God we have a federal Department of Transportation.
The genius security procedures laboriously implemented by the government over the past decade certainly served this country well on Bloody Tuesday. The real puzzler is how the hijackers managed to evade the "Did you pack your own bags?" trap. Only further investigation will solve that mystery.
Last week a CNN anchor raised the "Did you pack your own bags?" dragnet and somberly remarked -- this is a quote -- "No one will answer those questions so cavalierly again." We certainly won't. We will all remember: If those asinine questions hadn't been asked of millions of travelers day in day out year after year, enragingly stupid every time, it might have been possible for 19 murderous hijackers to board four separate commercial jets in America almost simultaneously one Tuesday morning.
Oh -- no, wait. The hijackers weren't foiled. But somehow the manifest irrelevance of the "Did you pack your own bags?" question has become its principal selling point.
We are also grateful for the magnetometers. The McDonald's rejects who man the machines are so efficient and courteous, you hardly notice them anymore. That's sarcasm. Despite addled TV commentators claiming that, heretofore, travelers had breezed right through the metal detectors, these are obviously people who haven't flown since the '50s.
Back on Earth, the sullen, dictatorial security personnel invariably stop all passengers who are not likely to punch them (girls), rifle through their belongings, slowly wipe some wand over their computers (a procedure that takes just long enough to almost miss your plane), carefully examine their persons -- down to the tiny metallic bra-strap hook -- and then methodically break any crystal vases the passenger is carrying. So don't tell me they're lazy.
It may be annoying, but the rash of hijackings by Connecticut WASP girls surely explains the time-consuming -- but still somehow completely useless -- examination of my personal effects. We all have to make sacrifices for airline safety.
Even with the shakedowns, I personally have carried a deadly plastic shiv and FBI mace through metal detectors dozens of times. Dozens. I wasn't even trying. I just forgot I was carrying them. Unless the government is going to require passengers, crew and pilots to travel naked and with no luggage, there is no spot search devisable that can keep the skies safe -- no matter how irritating.
Consequently, I propose an all-new standard for airline safety procedures: They should be procedures that make the airplane safer. With this new standard as my guide, I have a five-point plan.
(1) Pilots should be the first to board the plane and the cockpit door be locked like Fort Knox behind them, unopenable by anyone until the plane lands. The cabin crew should be able to communicate with the pilots only to request an emergency landing. But nothing that needs to be spoken over an intercom, such as: "Fly to Kabul or every passenger gets his throat slit."
(2) Every flight should carry at least two undercover agents capable of discharging hollow-point bullets, poison darts and electric shocks. The armed guards have to be incognito so that hijackers can't knock them off. Also to improve in-flight courtesy.
(3) We should require passports to fly domestically. Passports can be forged, but they can also be checked with the home country in case of any suspicious-looking swarthy males. It will be a minor hassle, but it's better than national ID cards. It's also far less annoying than the seat belt instructions.
(4) All 19 hijackers in last week's attack appear to have been aliens. As far as the Constitution is concerned, visitors to this country are here at the nation's pleasure. Congress could pass a law tomorrow requiring that all aliens from Arabic countries leave. (More on that next week.) Congress could certainly pass a law requiring all aliens to get approval from the INS before boarding an airplane in the United States.
(5) Of course, any security procedure imaginable can be breached by well-financed fanatics willing to commit suicide for their cause. The main deterrent to terrorists is to create despair and hopelessness by destroying their home sponsors. Colin Powell is just the man for the job. But on the off-chance that he is insufficiently ruthless, someone should tell Janet Reno that Islamic Fundamentalism is an offshoot of the Branch Davidians.