Sunday, July 31, 2011

Who's To Blame

About 20 years ago, I went to Philadelphia on business. After I completed my work, I headed back to the airport for my flight home to Raleigh. This, of course, was well before 9/11, but as I progressed through the security checkpoint, I remember going through the usual routine: shoes off, computer in a separate bin, jacket off, etc.. I used to carry a very small pocket knife back then, so I would always put that in the bin, as well. Except for this one time, when I apparently forgot to remove the knife from my pocket.

The reason I remember this particular experience with security is because of what happened as I proceeded through the metal detector. I beeped, of course, but it’s what happened next that sticks in my mind. And by that, I mean nothing! Nothing at all! I stopped, and I looked over toward the security agents (they weren’t known as TSA back then). I was waiting to be told that I had to check my pockets and go back through the metal detector. But instead, I got no response at all. No eye contact or attention of any kind. It was a particularly slow time at security, so I was actually the only one going through just then. As it turns out, the two security agents were engrossed in a personal conversation and were paying absolutely no attention to me, or to their responsibilities. I remember thinking to myself, “It’s a good thing for them that I’m not carrying a gun in my pocket!” I, of course, figured out right away that it was the knife, and as soon as I realized no one was paying attention, I just gathered my belongings and continued on to my gate.

What reminded me of this experience was the “TSA Stowaway” incident that was reported recently in the news. If it had happened at a small airport, I might have a different view. But it happened at JFK in New York, where you would think the TSA training would be as good as it gets. The stowaway apparently made it through the same security screening that I’m subjected to a couple of times a week. His boarding pass had another man’s name on it (he had pick-pocketed it the day before while riding the subway), and he also carried a stolen US passport. He then boarded a plane even though he was not on the flight manifest. It was not discovered until they were in the air, and several other passengers had complained about the man’s body odor. And I’m left wondering how this could have ever happened.

Whether this was a training run for some future terrorist act, or simply a crook who was trying to fly for free, it doesn’t give me a lot of confidence in my security. TSA subjects me (some times rudely) to a scanner that basically takes a photo of my naked body, or to an invasive and uncomfortable “pat-down”, allegedly to make sure that my fellow passengers and I are safe when we fly. I don’t like the security screening process, but I have submitted to it in return for the safety it supposedly preserves. In my view, airport security should be a zero-tolerance environment. The alternative is to accept “missing the occasional terrorist”. Kind of defeats the whole purpose.

Federal law states that being a stowaway on board a flight is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. My question is, what about the TSA agent(s) who let him into the secure area without proper documents? They say that disciplinary action is being taken, and at a minimum, the officers involved will receive remedial training. Seriously? Remedial training? I’ll accept that as long as they receive that training behind bars. If the stowaway gets jail time, then the agents who facilitated his crime by being more than careless should also do some time.