|Montreal, August 31, 2002 / No 108|
by Ralph Maddocks
I read the other day that a University of Melbourne-led team has discovered the location of the genes that can cause heart attacks. This got me to speculating if, some day in the future, a scientist will discover the gene for common sense. Reading about some of the acts of pure idiocy perpetrated around the world one hopes that we do not have to wait too long. There are so many such acts that it is difficult to know where to begin.
My opinion of the public servants around the world has never been particularly high, although I do know some for whom I might be prepared to make an exception. Another class of individuals where competition for the title "Idiot of the Month" seems quite fierce are airline security screening staff. While perhaps not technically bureaucrats, at least not yet, they share the same work ethic, if one may call it that way. A few examples should suffice.
A few weeks ago, I read of a grandmother who, returning to England from a vacation in the USA, had bought a present for her seven-year-old grandson. The present, calculated to appeal to a boy of that age, was a GI Joe doll complete with a miniature Armalite rifle in plastic, all of two inches (5 cm for the purists among us) in length. The security officials at LAX (Los Angeles airport, one of the world's busiest airports as measured by the amount of luggage it handles) discovered the toy when searching the grandmother's bags before she boarded her flight home.
Extracting the doll from its box they removed the miniature replica and confiscated it. They then asked the grandmother if she was carrying toy grenades as well, a question which the grand-mother took to be a joke, until she noticed that her unsmiling questioner was very serious. Noting that she had bought Beanie Babies for her other grandchildren she noted with relief that they too were not subjected to body searches. When trying to explain to her grandson why his toy was weaponless the boy asked: "Don't those people understand that the gun was a toy, and couldn't shoot?" Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings indeed.
When asked for an explanation, the Security Chiefs at the airport said: "We have instructions to confiscate anything that looks like a weapon or a replica. If GI Joe was carrying a replica then it had to be taken from him." There you have it, no reason – just company policy.
At another US airport a lawsuit is now being brought against some other overzealous public servants. This time it is because a lactating mother was found to have three bottles of her own expressed breast milk in her hand-luggage, milk she needed to nourish her child while in the air. She was refused boarding unless she drank from each bottle, no doubt to prove that they did not contain nuclear residues in liquid form.
An 80-year old great-grandmother, whose metal knee replacement pins set off a detector, was strip searched at the Grand Rapids airport in an unlocked room into which a man wandered during the process. Apart from the almost zero probability that explosives could be concealed inside a person's knees, such a physical location did not warrant a humiliating search of this kind.
A few days ago, a CNN presenter whose luggage had already passed through the X-ray machine was stopped from walking through the magnetometer because he had a paper cup of coffee in his hand. Although he offered to drink the coffee to prove that the dispenser from which it came was not dispensing explosive liquids, his offer was refused and he was told to walk back some 300 yards to dispose of the offending liquid. This then meant that his screened luggage had to be retrieved and upon returning to the checkpoint he was the subject of even greater interest by the screeners.
From Raleigh-Durham International Airport come complaints from women of treatment that amounts to deliberate groping and sexual harassment. From Phoenix's Sky Harbor International Airport too, there were 32 similar complaints from women that screeners had fondled and groped them. Officials seem unconcerned by this, and one spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, which was created after the terrorist attacks to manage airport security operations, remarked; "I wouldn't say we've had a lot of complaints. But we do see stories that crop up about someone who spoke to a reporter and wondered why the little old lady was searched and, yes, we do occasionally have complaints that screeners inappropriately touched someone." So that's all right then, not enough to discipline anyone, just one more hazard in the litany of post 911 air travel.
I have commented before about the poor training and low pay of airport security employees and for the pay they get perhaps one should not expect too much of them in the way of common sense. It is hard to imagine a more boring job, taking neatly packed items of intimate and possibly soiled apparel and stuffing them back haphazardly into someone's luggage, but it is supposed to be an important job according to our political masters.
During a one year US study, the staff of security screeners at the Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta – another of the busiest airports in the USA – turned over almost four times. At Boston's Logan Airport, from where terrorists hijacked two planes on September 11, it was discovered that their security staff had turned over twice. On average the study found that screening personnel turn over once per year. These critical gatekeepers are paid $6- to $12-an-hour in the USA, whereas their European counterparts earn as much as $10 per hour more which makes them "middle income" earners in those countries. In fact many US screeners are paid less than what the workers at fast-food restaurants at the same airports can earn.
In the US press after September 11, one read much criticism of the use of private companies supplying the screening personnel, and many called for the government to take over this responsibility. A call which was answered immediately and positively by that conservative, anti-big government proponent, George W. Bush. Virtually unmentioned was the fact that many of these same private US companies are providing security at many European airports. Of course, given the socialist political climate of Europe these American companies are under contract to the government or airport authority of the countries in which they operate. In the USA these same companies are responsible to the airlines themselves; of 103 countries with international airports, only Canada and Bermuda confer screening responsibility to the air carriers themselves. It seems to me that the carriers themselves have a clear and pecuniary interest in protecting their aircraft from loss or damage.
Unlike the USA, Belgium requires its screeners to be citizens and France requires its screeners to be citizens of a European Union country. Screeners in the Netherlands do not have to be citizens, but they must have been residents of the country for at least five years. Using citizenship as a factor in employment obviously makes it much easier to conduct background security checks. However, in the USA an ex-US army soldier was refused a job as a screener because he wasn't a US citizen. You can defend the US, and you can die for it, but you can't be trusted to examine ladies underwear for explosives.
Another major difference, apart from the pay scales, is the amount of training required by European screeners. In the USA, the Federal Aviation Authority requires all screeners to have 12 hours of classroom training before they can begin work. This is in contrast to France which requires 60 hours of training. In Belgium, screeners require at least 40 hours of training with an added 16-24 hours for each additional activity, such as operating an X-ray machine. In addition, countries such as Belgium, France, Canada and India allow only ticketed passengers through the screening checkpoints, thus freeing screeners to check fewer people more thoroughly.
In the United Kingdom and in much of Europe, security forces – armed with automatic weapons – patrol at or near checkpoints. The Israeli airline, El Al, which is considered to practise the tightest security measures, places at least one armed, plainclothes sky marshal on each flight. On the ground, it uses a team of young agents to interrogate passengers, asking such questions as why passengers are flying to a particular city, who they know at their destination, and, why they paid for a ticket with cash. Paying with cash in the US would invariably lead to accusations of drug trafficking and confiscation of all your cash.
Two presidential commissions – established after the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988 and the mechanical failure that brought down TWA Flight 800 in 1996 – in addition to the Department of Transportation's own Inspector General, all reported in considerable detail many dangerous flaws found in airport security. Even the FAA itself documented this laxity. In an almost prophetic warning a year ago, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of the US Congress, reported that airport security had not improved, and in many cases had worsened. Even though security screeners detect an average of 2,000 weapons a year, "the security of the air transport system remains at risk," the GAO said.
At the time of the September 11th highjackings, however, the FAA had not yet completed implementation of a certification programme for airport screeners, as mandated by the 1996 Federal Aviation Reauthorization Act. In addition, President Bill Clinton signed legislation requiring airport screeners and those with access to secure areas to be subject to a criminal history record check – but that provision hasn't taken effect yet. It is obvious that in future anyone wishing to plant a bomb or hide weapons on a plane will do this with the help of airport workers who have access to an aircraft. It seems to me unlikely that making mothers drink their baby's formula or confiscating toy gun replicas will accomplish very little in that line.
Many years ago there was an epidemic of people seemingly anxious to visit Mr Castro's socialist heaven in Cuba. To do so many of them were diverting aircraft en route to other destinations. At that time I proposed a simple solution to the problem. Why not, upon boarding, issue each adult with a single-shot pistol. It would be a very brave hijacker indeed that was prepared to face 300 or so people aiming their loaded guns in their direction. In the meantime, keeping paper cups of coffee off aircraft will have to suffice, at least until some biologist discovers that much needed "common sense" gene.
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