Only Israel knows our fears

Posted: Jan 31, 2002 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON -- As President George W. Bush enters the second year of his presidency, the country is at war. It is a war the likes of which this nation has never seen. In fact, few nations have experienced such a war. Israel has. The United Kingdom has. Spain, facing its Basque separatists, is a third. All three of these nations have years of uncomfortable experiences with terrorism. Yet, owing to the willingness of our terrorist enemies to commit suicide, we and our allies face a new and uncertain conflict that only Israel has endured. This is war of a truly new and barbaric kind. Our security forces and Justice Department can make few mistakes. Thus far, they have done well, and the historically unprecedented support the president enjoys is an indication that Americans appreciate their predicament and his leadership. Yet terrorism's challenges are just beginning. The solidarity of support behind the president must endure, and now is a good time for the president to anticipate threats to that solidarity. Looking back on World War II, most Americans assume FDR had solid support throughout. He did not. As late as the summer of 1941 74 percent of the American people opposed our entry into the world conflict. From the left and the right and even from the middle, Americans mustered arguments and complaints against the president's policies even after the war began. Mere months after Pearl Harbor, once our anger had cooled, 30 percent of Americans favored a negotiated peace with the German government, albeit a German government free of Hitler. History records that the Roosevelt administration fought World War II with an ebbing and flowing opposition from the general populace and from Capitol Hill. Even Sen. Harry Truman was an occasional yet forceful critic. So now is a proper time for President Bush to anticipate possible sources of protest that might weaken his execution of this uniquely difficult war. I suggest he take a look at our airport security policies. They are a mess. In air travel over the past few months, I have seen our airport security measures evolve from laxity to painful chaos. Last week during a trip from Reagan National through Atlanta's vast airport to Daytona Beach and back, I witnessed stress on passengers and security personnel, and foolishness in security practices that suggest conflict ahead for the government and ongoing recession for the airlines. As airport security is crucial to this conflict, deficient policy there must be eliminated -- but it is worsening. Airport security is now bereft of standards and a sense of proportion. Airline passengers need to know what they cannot carry. Some of the confiscations are ridiculous -- for instance, one-inch fingernail files attached to fingernail clippers that pass one airport and not another. Pens and pencils are conceivably just as dangerous, but with reinforced cabin doors neither of these instruments nor dozens of others should be prohibited. An 81-year-old lady passing through Dulles International had a fingernail clipper, a keepsake from her deceased husband, confiscated in security only to find that she could purchase a new one at a newsstand a few hundred feet beyond. Some weeks ago, an 86-year-old veteran's Congressional Medal of Honor was temporarily stopped by airport security. Such invasions of privacy will erode the government's support and in spectacular ways once the trial lawyers get into the act. And whatever is confiscated ought to be returned to passengers one way or another. Many security inspectors lack the discretion and training to avoid abuses, though their authority is apparently enormous. At Reagan National, I witnessed inspectors who could hardly speak English and were utterly ignorant of American manners. They should not be confronting passengers, and when passengers are asked to open carry-on baggage or to remove clothing (a United States congressman bearing congressional identification was recently asked to remove his pants), it should be in the privacy provided by curtains or booths, as in Israel and other countries. All security personnel should be wearing uniforms, as should flight attendants who may be called upon to exert authority. On several flights, I noted that the flight attendants were not in uniform, and those who were wore uniforms that were so casual as to be hardly recognizable. I am sure that much more can be done to standardize security and make it less stressful without endangering airport security. Not only passengers but also airline employees and security personnel are suffering unnecessary stress. The damage to the travel industry could be as great as the damage to the president's support. And one final point: The Wall Street Journal reports that the Department of Transportation has barred profiling of passengers who look like possible terrorists. "According to DOT standards," writes the Journal, "speaking Arabic, appearing to be from the Mideast, wearing a veil (for women) or a beard (for men) are all reasons
not to be singled out." That is about as absurd as assessing a Congressional Medal of Honor as a threat to public safety.