There's a certain type of American sophisticate who rhapsodizes about how wonderful and civilized Europe is in comparison with his own land of the free. Like high school French Club presidents who pompously describe the day's cafeteria offerings as lacking "a certain je ne sais quoi," such people can't stop talking about how magnifique it would be if the United States got in line with the Continent on everything from government-mandated maternity leave to long, wine-soaked lunches.
Since September 11, members of the Beret of the Month Club have discovered a new fault in the American way of doing things. The country's airports, they complain, have been guarded all these years by poorly skilled workers employed by private companies. When Europhiles head over to Paris or Rome for their annual vacations, one of the first things they notice on the ground is the number of armed police swaggering around the airport with automatic weapons.
"America's airport security is shockingly lax," Gregg Easterbrook declared in The New Republic shortly after the attacks. In contrast, he wrote, "Within sight of security checkpoints in most European airports are police with assault rifles, wearing armor vests....Once, in France, I was asked to turn on my sniper-bullet-shaped pocket flashlight to demonstrate that it really was a flashlight." A nice story, but it's hard to believe that even before September 11 the most illiterate minimum-wage screener in the U.S. wouldn't have raised an eyebrow if you had thrown faux ammo in the dish with your change.
Easterbrook's widely echoed feeling that he is safer in Europe is only a feeling, one that is demonstrably misguided. In Europe, governments set standards for aviation security (just as in America). And private companies actually do the work of screening passengers (just as in America -- at least until recently). It's worth noting that French cops -- public employees, every man Jacques of them -- allowed would-be shoe bomber Richard C. Reid to board an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami in December. What's more, the French police's OK came after the private employees of American Airlines demanded further scrutiny of their oddly acting passenger (who paid for his ticket in cash and checked no bags).
In any case, Reid's conning of French cops came after Congress passed a law nationalizing airport security. In November, the House and Senate came to terms on an aviation security bill that made baggage screeners federal employees and set new minimum standards for such workers. The standards required that all screeners possess a high school diploma or its equivalent. Realizing that such a stringent requirement would have resulted in an immediate canning of a quarter of the workforce, regulators decreed that a year of experience staring at an X-ray machine screen was the equivalent of a GED.
In other words, those who said the legislation would do nothing for security -- those who were accused of, as Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) put it, "putting...a private profit ahead of public protection" -- turned out to be right. The only outcome is a fatter government payroll, not a fitter work force.
Ultimately, though, it may not matter who pays the checkers or whether they went to high school. The U.S. civil aviation system is an awesomely big affair that moves far too many passengers every day for it to be possible to plug every leak without imposing crippling costs and delays on a prime mover of the country and the world. What that means is that we must all continue to take our exceedingly good chances, and as passengers we must all be en garde.
Richard Reid's shoe bomb probably would have made it past a battalion of Ph.D. civil servants confiscating nail clippers. It was attentive airline employees who first realized he needed scrutiny, and it was vigilant passengers and crew who kept him from detonating his bomb. Just as passengers did their duty on United Flight 93 and prevented it from hitting terrorist targets, in what is today properly remembered as a stunning act of American private enterprise.