Taking an ice pick to airline security

Posted: Aug 28, 2005 12:00 AM

Ready for your flight? Got your ticket? Your government-issued photo ID? An ice pick?

Truth is stranger than fiction. The 9/11 hijackers are believed to have used box cutters to take over the airplanes and commit their evil — a tool, a weapon, which at that time was actually approved for carrying onto airplanes. Today, the Transportation Security Administration is looking at new rules that would again allow passengers to carry on similar items: ice picks, razor blades, martial arts throwing stars, bows and arrows, and knives under five inches long . . . which would appear to include box cutters.

The same Transportation Security Administration (TSA) that seems to delight in taking away our tiny nail clippers — to save us from doom at 30,000 feet — now suggests it might be A-OK to bring an ice pick on board.

Don't get me wrong. I'm glad to see the TSA relax some of its ridiculous rules. Folks may soon be able to keep their shoes on while going through security, and the days of harassing travelers for using one-way tickets may finally be over. No complaint there. In fact, I applaud the agency for any attempt, even a feeble one, to pay attention to flyers as people, as citizens, as customers.

But as David Marks writes at Blogcritics.org, "How is it 'customer-friendly' to allow scissors, razor blades, small knives, ice picks, throwing stars and bows and arrows on flights? Is there a great need to cut things, shave, pick ice, practice martial arts or target practice on a moving flight?"

Apparently, the TSA wants passengers to be better armed than pilots. The agency fought the proposal to permit pilots to carry firearms and then consistently dragged its feet in creating a system to evaluate, process and approve pilots. TSA even mandated that pilots go through an invasive psychological exam to carry a gun.

It never made much sense that a pilot already trusted with the lives of hundreds of people on the plane and thousands more on the ground should face such laborious additional scrutiny to carry a gun. Especially considering the gun was there only as a last-ditch defense against a maniacal mass murderer threatening to take over the plane.

Maybe government isn't really supposed to make sense.

It is also par for the course that the egalitarian TSA is proposing that certain big-shot passengers — such as members of Congress, airline pilots, Cabinet members, state governors, federal judges, high-ranking military officers and people with top-secret security clearances — not be screened at all. It might be worth considering if everyone on this list could be trusted, but just read the list again from the beginning.

"Either you screen everybody," responded Douglas Laird, former head of security for Northwest Airlines, "or why screen anybody?"

TSA's mission is to make certain that planes aren't hijacked, flown into buildings or blown out of the sky. And give it some credit; no planes have been hijacked or blown up since September 11, 2001.

But even the TSA — in making the argument for relaxing the list of prohibited carry-on items — tacitly admits that their screening at airports doesn't have much impact. TSA gives the credit for preventing hijackings and other attacks to new reinforced cockpit doors, increased use of air marshals and the fact that passengers will no longer sit idly by while being hijacked. The change in the expected behavior of passengers is the biggest factor, and may by itself be enough to thwart future hijackings.

On the other hand, many doubts remain about air marshals and TSA's passenger screening at airports. The former inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security reported in 2002 that air marshals were found sleeping on the job, tested positive for alcohol or drugs while on duty, and even lost their weapons. Surely this doesn't apply to most air marshals and doesn't mean they aren't a good idea — just that they aren't foolproof. Pun intended.

And who hasn't suspected that the elaborate and expensive screening at airports is much more about show — to impress Nervous Nellies into a false sense of security — than about serious security work. Numerous official and unofficial tests of airport screeners have illuminated holes big enough to drive a truck-bomb through. Undercover government agents were able to sneak explosives and weapons past security screeners at 15 airports during one set of tests in 2003.

In fact, TSA officials now acknowledge they are more concerned about bombs being smuggled aboard airliners than about passengers using a Swiss army knife or an ice pick to hijack a jet. They argue that looking for and confiscating cigarette lighters and nail clippers only hinders the search for more serious weapons, such as bombs.

It's hard to argue with this logic, but an ice pick? Throwing stars? Arrows?

As those of us who fly a great deal know, the TSA is a political bureaucracy that will never function like a dynamic group of 007s. It can never ensure us total safety from terrorists. Even real 007s couldn't guarantee that.

We can have more protective, more common-sense policies. All it may take is for the TSA to regard my fellow passengers with a little more solidarity, as something more than cash cows (or any kind of cattle) and certainly a whole lot more than terrorist suspects. Treat us with a little more respect, and we might even be relied upon. For, in this whole mess, it's my fellow passengers I trust most.