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Security -- or just silliness?

Are new rules for flying really making us safer?

January 02, 2010|By David H. Steinberg

A lunatic tries to blow up an airplane, so now my 2-year-old daughter can't sleep on her pillow. If this is how we respond as a nation to terror threats, then maybe the terrorists really are winning.

Allow me to connect the dots. My family and I were in Aruba for the last two weeks. Then, as we started packing for our return flight, news spread across One Happy Island (yes, that is Aruba's official motto -- it's on the license plates) that another lunatic had tried to blow up a plane. We were scheduled to fly the next day -- not exactly an ideal time to be traveling back to the U.S. from abroad (let alone from a part of the kingdom of the Netherlands), but we figured it would at least be a safe day to travel.

Anticipating that the TSA might have instituted some new rules overnight, we arrived at Queen Beatrix Airport 4 1/2 hours early. Some airlines weren't allowing carry-ons; Delta just made us put a red sticker on them (not sure how that was supposed to help, but we did as we were told).

We went through two Aruban X-ray stations and passed one bomb-sniffing dog handled by U.S. TSA agents. Then came an announcement that boarding would start an hour before our scheduled departure, and that all passengers would be frisked and have their carry-ons searched.

Most people were OK with the idea of the frisk and search. But it turned out that One Happy Island didn't have enough security personnel to carry out the searches, so we were frisked by baggage handlers who still wore their fluorescent orange vests.

Our frisker seemed a little dazed. I guess you pick up the basics from watching "Cops" and the like, but he did look embarrassed when he frisked my 4-year-old son. My 2-year-old daughter didn't know how to "assume the position," so our baggage handler just patted her on the head and sent her on her way. With all the searching and frisking, boarding took 2 1/2 hours.

Onboard, we learned of more new TSA rules (for flights to the U.S. originating abroad). All electronic devices would have to be turned off an hour before landing instead of just on descent. And no one could have a pillow or blanket on their person during the last hour of the flight. Seriously. Cut to my daughter screaming bloody murder as the flight attendant yanks the pillow from under her head. Seriously.

I get that the threat of terrorism is real. But if these hastily thrown-together rules are how we respond to new threats, then something is seriously wrong with us (or at least the TSA). If two X-rays, a bomb-sniffing dog, a frisk and a bag search can't detect the next terror attack, then how is turning off the DVD player an hour early and grabbing pillows from sleeping children going to help? Keep in mind that the new rules only apply to the last hour of the flight (presumably because Friday's particular lunatic decided to set off his bomb only on descent). Won't the no-pillow policy just cause Al Qaeda to issue orders to detonate at T minus 1:01?

We all know that we have to take off our shoes at security because some other lunatic tried to blow up his shoes. These rules, created in response to the latest terror plots, inconvenience us all and waste time and money as more and more resources are allotted to enforcing them. But we tolerate it because it's a small price to pay for security.

But what if the rule has no bearing on security? What if the rule is just, well, silly? Something cooked up by some TSA paper pusher aimed at stopping the last attack, not anticipating the next one. How long are we going to tolerate increasingly preposterous and obviously useless rules in the name of security? When the TSA recommends you arrive at the airport three hours before a flight? Four hours? What if it takes six hours to get from the curb to the plane because next year's lunatic tries to break the plane's window with his bare skull and so the TSA decides every man, woman and child needs to be outfitted with padded headgear?

There's got to be a better way. A system that keeps us safe without impinging on the civil liberties we cherish. A system whereby suspicious individuals get scrutinized, and everyone else gets to sleep on their own pillows.

David H. Steinberg is a screenwriter living in Santa Monica.

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