I'm sitting at Newark Airport waiting for my wife and nine children to disembark from an aircraft that landed hours ago. They arrived from Chicago, where we all attended a beautiful family wedding. The kids have school tomorrow and would have had a decent night's sleep, except that some guy wandered backward through an exit and into the secure area of the Continental Airlines terminal, sending the entire airport into lockdown. (Sometimes I wonder if God is playing a trick by making me the Forrest Gump of current events. How did I ever get into this story?)
My wife is calling me every 10 minutes with an "update"; the pilot will only say they are delayed indefinitely. The entire terminal is being cleared out. All departing planes are being unloaded and passengers are having to go through security all over again. And all because one guy walked backward through an exit. They've scoured the airport and they can't find him.
THIS IS the level of farce that passes for airport security here in the United States. Just over a week ago a Nigerian man sewed explosives into his skivvies and would have blown up hundreds of innocents except that his underwear failed to ignite. The fact that his super-credible banker father had already gone to the American Embassy to warn that his son was an extremist nut wasn't enough to get his visa revoked or get his name put on a no-fly list. And here we are, just a few days later, and one of New York's three premiere airports is shut down because a man walked straight through a "secure" exit without being stopped.
Nice to know we're being protected by the Keystone Kops.
Let's state the obvious. They can install the most sophisticated machinery. They can X-ray our boxers, they can check for explosives in every bodily orifice, but we're still not going to be safe; it's not only people's bodies but their backgrounds, their nationalities, and especially their eyes.
Israel has the most secure airport in the world. I cannot imagine for a moment that a man with nitroglycerine in his undies would ever have made it on an Israeli plane. And why? Because they would have asked him some simple, direct questions with the purpose of studying his reactions. You're from Nigeria. You're going to the US. Why? How long are you staying? What is your purpose? And where is your return ticket? All along they would be scrutinizing not his bodily bulges but his twitches. What Israel excels at is not even ethnic profiling so much as psychological profiling.
BUT HOW can we ever hope to study people's suspicious behavior when Transportation Security Administration agents are wasting their precious time on the most innocent of passengers who don't fit any kind of terrorist profile? On the way to Chicago last week, my 11-year-old daughter's backpack somehow merited secondary screening. For 10 minutes a TSA agent performed about seven explosive swab tests on every knickknack a young girl might carry onto a plane. Her reading books seemed to be of particular interest. I could only roll my eyes and pray for patience. While this went on, approximately 50 adults passed through without any secondary screening because my 11-year-old occupied the agent's rapt attention. Could this have gotten any more ridiculous?
The answer, unfortunately, is yes. I travel often. They degree of silliness I have witnessed is staggering. I have seen 70-year-old grandmas with hip replacements being combed by two TSA agents (who knows what those surgeons implanted there!). I once saw an octogenarian with a cane forced to remove his neck brace and have it repeatedly swabbed for explosives.
Good, you say. Terrorists come in many forms. And if we principally look out for young men from known terrorist countries, the terrorists will quickly adapt and activate their sleeper-agent - Edith from Valley View Retirement Home - to detonate the nitroglycerine hidden in her dentures.
I concede that indeed there have been unsuspecting young female passengers who have been given bombs by their terrorist boyfriends, which is why we have to absolutely check everyone. But airport security is never going to be omniscient, so you need to focus on those who pose the greatest threat.
Nationality is not any real predictor of terrorism. Richard Reid was a Briton who was half-Jamaican. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is not from the Middle East, but Nigeria. Timothy McVeigh was an American. But these, and nearly every other terrorist bomber, were males of a certain age group. None were 11-year-olds with schoolwork stuffed in their backpacks who happened to be traveling with eight other siblings. Would it not therefore make sense to concentrate on those who most closely fit the terrorist profile, while letting up on the three-year-olds with their toy tractors?
HERE IS where Israel has a unique opening. A country that routinely gets terrible press because of how effectively its enemies portray it as repressive can come to the West's rescue with sound advice on how to secure air travel. In the process the West will gain a greater understanding of the level of threat Israel is up against. I'm surprised that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has not already given a major address sympathizing with the American people for the intended attack on Christmas Day and offering Israel's assistance.
Israel, after all, often dispatches humanitarian rescue teams to various parts of the world after an earthquake or tsunami. Why not immediately dispatch a high-level security team to Washington to advise an increasingly hapless Homeland Security Administration about the right way to deploy limited resources in securing a vast air network? I realize that Israel is a tiny country and has to secure only one major airport. But then again, unlike the US, it lives surrounded by terrorists yet has an exemplary record in protecting air travel.
Well, here I am at the end of my column and my family is still stuck on the plane. Aside from the subject matter this unfortunate nuisance has provided, this has been a real hindrance to nine children who have school tomorrow. I can only hope that by the time next week's column is due I'm not still here waiting for the TSA to find a man who simply waltzed into one of America's most guarded airports.
The writer is founder of This World: The Values Network and author of The Michael Jackson Tapes.