The proper way to do airport security is brought to us by El Al Airlines. I have flown Israel's national airline many times and have always been impressed with the way they interrogate every passenger. That's right, interrogate. There's no perfunctory, "Did any stranger ask you to carry anything? Have all of your items been with you since you packed them?" After all, what terrorist is going to say, "No stranger gave me anything, but several of my friends and I are carrying bombs which we intend to use to blow up your airplane and kill everyone on board, including ourselves, Allah be praised"?
Western security always seems to be one or more steps behind the terrorists. It goofed badly on Sept. 11. A disaster was averted last Saturday (Dec. 22) on a Paris-Miami flight when a quick-thinking flight attendant and several male passengers subdued a man identified as Richard Reid (who doesn't look like his name) as he allegedly tried to set fire to his sneakers, which authorities say contained explosives.
Here's the way the Israelis do things:
Before I get to the ticket counter in New York, a young Jewish man or woman intercepts me and examines my ticket and passport in great detail. He (or she) asks me where I'm from and my area code. I had better know it. The questions continue in a steady stream. What do I do for a living? What papers carry my column? How long have I been a writer? What do I write about? Have I been to Israel before? Where did I stay? Did I travel to any of the territories? What for? Who did I see? Have I ever been to an Arab country? Where? For how long? What for? Whom did I interview while there? What was I told? What is my mother's maiden name? Do I know why I am being asked these questions?
If any answer is wrong, or if I seem evasive, I could be taken out of line and questioned further. No airline is as secure to fly as El Al. Armed guards escort all planes to the runway. These efforts explain why El Al has had only one hijacking in its history, in 1968, before the current procedures were in place.
El Al also checks every passenger through Interpol to see if they have a police record. If two people are traveling together, they're sometimes questioned separately to see if their stories match. And El Al profiles its passengers without apology. They know what their enemies look like and where most of them come from.
Compare this approach to what the traveling public faces in the United States and much of the West. The security people hired to protect U.S. airline passengers are a joke. Many are not American citizens. They appear bored with their jobs and most lack the kind of law enforcement training that would help them spot trouble before a dangerous passenger gets on a plane. Security isn't just about finding contraband in luggage or on a passenger's person.
It's also about detecting what's in someone's mind and being able to read what their eyes say.
Some aviation experts with whom I've spoken say the United States does not have to hire the Israelis for its own security but it had better adopt their procedures if we want safer travel. All the talk about civil liberties and the Constitution is of no use when airline passengers are targeted by a passenger with plastic explosives hidden in his shoes.
Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta says he opposes profiling because as a young boy he spent time in a Japanese internment camp during World War II. But that was then and this is now. Japanese-Americans were no threat to us then. The terrorist threat among us now is real. As irritating as some airline security procedures may be, it's better to arrive at your destination alive and somewhat offended and inconvenienced than not to arrive at all.
The Bush administration should support the Israelization of American airline security, and it should make it a high priority, no matter what the cost.