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Commentary | JOHN BALZAR

The Airport Screener Blame Game

January 09, 2002|JOHN BALZAR

I keep hearing the refrain: The U.S. is backing away from its promise to make airline travel safe.

The evidence? High school. The government has changed its mind. Instead of having to show a high school diploma, the people who are employed at passenger checkpoints are going to be given credit for work experience.

Frank Rich of the New York Times, for one, fumed: "Now we're asked to believe that high school dropouts are our best front-line of defense against the cunning likes of Mohamed Atta, the recipient of two university degrees."

Quick, everybody, write Congress. Demand your "rights" to be screened by a high school graduate.

Once again, blame rolls downhill. Who's at fault for Sept. 11? Well, we've got to look beyond the airlines, which fought security upgrades tooth and nail. Beyond the government, which ignored its own warnings about the porous system. Beyond the low-bid contractors, whose orders were to keep the lines moving. Beyond ourselves, always in a hurry and looking for the cheapest fare.

Nope, the real villains, it appears, were the people who wear those ill-fitting company blazers at the checkpoints. The ones who didn't have high school diplomas. They let the box cutters slip through because, well, you know. They were dropouts.

About one-quarter of our young people drop out of high school, according to the National Center for Education. Almost half of Latinos do and 40% of African Americans. Are they all incompetents? All incapable of responsibility? Are they all stone stupid? And what about our immigrants, those people with the gumption to get here but maybe not the pedigree that it took to get into high school back home?

Those who would deny people credit for work experience imagine the worst.

What if you imagined otherwise? What if you imagined a woman who married young, had two children and then was abandoned by her husband. Maybe she was a B student who quit high school to care for the first baby.

Maybe she struggled at temp jobs for a couple of years, then got hired on as airport security. She was taught how to recognize the shapes of dangerous items on the screening machine. She learned how to "wand" people at the secondary check.

At first, she was a problem employee. She studied the screen too carefully. You probably remember her because the line moved slowly whenever she was on. Hurry up, her supervisor warned her. Faster. Quit asking to have so many bags hand-searched. Keep things moving. Hurry.

People in line grew impatient and were heard to whisper, "Who is this moron?"

Box-cutting knives were not in the training manual's profile. She had seen travel alarm clocks that were the same shape as box cutters on the X-ray image and fancy pencil holders too. But she did find a five-inch pocketknife in the carry-on of one passenger. Nobody told her, "Good work." Just to keep hurrying. So she did.

Maybe there's another screener somewhere who knows a thing or two about the gritty side of life. Perhaps this screener raised questions about those big cowboy belt buckles. Have you ever seen what horrible damage they can do in a bar fight when you wrap leather around your hand and start swinging the buckle? Ah, but this screener didn't have a diploma so the supervisor said, "Mind your own business."

Different parents, different luck, some dropouts would have gone on to college. Now, if they have proved that they can work, why not let them?

We can't trust these people? Then how come we give them driver's licenses? That last cabby who took you down the freeway at 75 mph, did he have a high school diploma? And how about all those 18-wheel trucks out there, shoulder to shoulder at breakneck speed. We live or die each day on the collective judgment, concentration and diligence of these men and women behind the wheel--not on whether they got bored with algebra or fed up with abusive parents and left home early to get a job.

Yes, a diploma is one measure of a person, and an important one. But isn't an employment record another?

Thomas Edison never even started high school. Dave Thomas, the celebrated Wendy's hamburger entrepreneur who died Tuesday, never finished.

For that matter, neither did the Eastern European immigrant who rebuilt the brakes on my car. I trusted my life to him, and your life too if you shared the road with me.

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