Put your toothpicks in the mail

Posted: Jun 13, 2002 12:00 AM
Since the administration is engaged in radical reform with the view to augmenting homeland security, a pitch should be made for the application, in airline travel, of intelligence -- that's intelligence as in "the faculty of thinking, reasoning, and acquiring and applying knowledge." Nothing to do with counter-terrorism, but a great deal to do with the public morale and, conceivably, of lifesaving consequence for the airline industry.

The comedian David Brenner is on the warpath on the subject. He told his audience that he has taken a long gig at a club in New Jersey for the single reason that it will spare him his routine, which for years has been dates here and there that had him flying an average of six times a week. He describes the ordeal, which most Americans who fly have experienced.

He likes to recount the airline trip with his 6-year-old son. The security people insisted on removing the slugger's baseball cap, examining it and prying loose the lining -- even as a few grownups wearing baseball caps (perhaps they should have aroused suspicion, but they didn't) breezed by. Brenner recounted, over the air, stratagems he and others have tried, intended to avoid or palliate the flying experience. They include arriving at the airport with less and less luggage -- he didn't examine the possibility of arriving in underwear, but nothing has spared him the time, and the humiliation; he is not above complaining that some of the strip-searchers don't speak in English.

And then he discovered that an "S" is affixed to his name on air tickets, which scarlet letter instructs personnel to Search. If you have an "S," you will certainly have to take off your shoes to yield any hidden bomb. And an "S" can affix itself to anybody, under the random rule.

Brenner speaks of the tall man with a mustache who checked in carrying a magnum automatic pistol, fully loaded. He got by the inspectors in the matter of the firearm because he had a permit exactly describing and authorizing the weapon. The searcher then turned to a manicure set and removed from it a clipper, used to trim the traveler's mustache. He was told he would have to give up the clipper and have it mailed to his home address.

This made the man with the mustache indignant. He demanded to know the reason for it. He was told that the mustache trimmer could be used as a weapon in any effort to take control of the plane. Surely, he protested finally, if he wanted to take over the plane by force, he would use his magnum pistol, not his mustache trimmer. And anyway, why would he try to take control of the plane, since he was already in control of the plane, serving in his capacity as captain?

An intelligent reform would aim at presumptive clearances.

  • The passenger is a woman? One credit.

  • The passenger's Social Security number is flashed through the system, showing no record of deception? One credit.

  • The passenger is under 15? One credit.

  • The passenger is over 50? One credit.

  • The passenger has no felony record? One credit.

  • The passenger is white or black? One credit.

  • The passenger paid for the ticket with a credit card? One credit.

    If, checking in, the passenger has a total of 5 credits or better, affix an "N/S" on his boarding card -- No Search required.

    Now it is acrostically easy to devise the passenger with 5 points who is nevertheless a terrorist on duty. A woman ... using an innocent woman's name and Social Security number ... is 60 years old ...

    Yes, the system would have to admit that a duck-billed platypus could get into that airplane under the proposed credit system, with anthrax under her fingernails.

    But we have to hit the problem by reasoning a posteriori: We ) know that the existing system is preposterous. I don't have the wholesome looks of Mr. Brenner, but more than once, checking in my luggage, the curbside attendant has said, "How you doing, Mr. Buckley? Now let me see your ID."

    David Brenner thinks that the only solution to the problem would be to make Tom Ridge travel once a week on a commercial airline trip. He would discover that his role as head of homeland security wouldn't get him past the first inspector. Sitting down while they examined his shoes, he could give a little intelligent attention to the stupidities 9/11 generated and American bureaucrats tolerate.