Let's get this straight. During the months and years of planning that led up to September 11, the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, the FAA and Lord knows how many other federal alphabet agencies, with their billion-dollar budgets and whiz-bang technology, failed to figure out that 19 men, with the support of dozens of accomplices, were planning on turning commercial jets into flying missiles capable of killing thousands. Yet since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the groups coming under the most fire for allowing the terrorists to board the doomed aircraft have been private security companies working the metal detectors at airports.
To hear many tell it (especially editorial writers and the readers who love them), airport security guards must be transubstantiated into federal employees immediately. "We're from the government and we're here to help" should no longer be a scary thought now that we're at war, the chatterers say, and the surest way to fix airport security in their eyes is with a stack of federal pay stubs and a strong union of the sort that has already given public sector employees a bad name in many other agencies.
Yet there is precisely zero evidence that such a move would do anything to make life safer for the traveling public -- even though it could lead to the abuse and harassment of passengers. Already there have been reports of injustices large and small in airports across the country, from Arab-Americans (including a congressman) being tossed off planes for their appearance to travelers having their manicure kits confiscated, lest they be used to commandeer an aircraft.
One unfortunate fellow was not allowed to fly simply because he carried a book with a picture of a bomb on the cover. It's as if a gang of the worst sort of zero-tolerance public school principals had suddenly taken over the nation's airports, aided and abetted by that segment of the population that will accept any idea if it's pitched as being "for our safety." Despite this hyperactive vigilance, a Nepalese man almost boarded a flight in Chicago Saturday night with a sack full knives and a can of mace, resulting in the immediate sacking of eight workers. Who knows how many labor tribunals would have to be called to achieve similar results if it were government agents who displayed such incompetence?
Meanwhile, for some, those confidence-building National Guard troops now patrolling the nation's airports have become a symbol of everything that can go wrong with giving government badges to security workers. Just ask R.V. Scheide. Scheide, a Sacramento-based photojournalist, was detained, forced to delete photos on his digital camera, had his notebook scrutinized by the FBI, and was pulled off a flight at Los Angeles International Airport he had already boarded on October 12 because he had the temerity to question a soldier who got angry at having his picture taken. "Suspicious behavior," the photographer was told.
Clearly, what is needed here is not more federal employees, but instead some sort of uniform standard to prevent abuses and keep everyone's eye on the real goal: preventing actually dangerous people with actually dangerous items from boarding planes. It is hard to see how federal workers will help further that goal, when in fact they would almost certainly create a hard-to-sack bureaucracy. In Europe and Israel (which has the world's strictest and most effective airport security set-up in the world), the workers staffing the metal detectors and passenger interview stands are private employees who work under the auspices of government regulators who set uniform standards and procedures. This is similar to the system already in place in the U.S. that ensures planes are properly maintained: American commercial aircraft are kept safely flying by privately-employed mechanics working under government supervision and regulation, and so far there haven't been any calls to federalize them. Yet.
There is certainly a role for the FAA or other Washington agencies to play here in terms of setting higher -- and more consistent -- standards for airport security. (Click here for the government's current official "yes" and "no" list of what can be brought on board, and whip out a copy the next time someone tries to take your nail clippers away at the gate).
But so far, it seems as though the government and the airlines have focused entirely on preventing a repeat of the September 11th attacks, as if the terrorists would attempt to drink from that well again. Meanwhile, there is still little to no extra attention being paid to other, weaker, links in the security chain. Checked baggage is still rarely X-rayed or searched and, except on international flights, isn't even positively matched to passengers. And it's only a matter of time and human nature before security personnel let down their guard a bit and stop looking at every passenger who crosses their path as if they were terrorist versions of G. Gordon Liddy, able to turn the simplest household object into a lethal weapon with which to commandeer a plane.
Once that happens, it won't matter who signs the security screeners' paychecks -- only that they have strong training and consistent standards to follow in ferreting out the bad guys, and let the rest of us travel in peace.