Simon Says

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NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small

Please Consider the Frisks Involved

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A frequent flyer says random searches are easily ridiculed, but they're a necessary exercise... even when carried out on a two-year-old daughter or U.S. senator. And the 45,000 airport screeners enforcing the rules need as much help as they can get.


I fly somewhere every few days and often join my fellow passengers in laughing at the inanities of air travel regulations: senior citizens getting wanded in their wheelchairs; parents wrestling tiny pink shoes off of babies so they can be screened; TSA screeners in their short-sleeved white shirts saying, politely but firmly, the kind of things that used to be considered strictly personal, like I'm going to run my hands up your legs now.

I was once on a shuttle between New York and Boston where two people were selected for special screening: our two-year-old daughter and the U.S. senator who is chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. A lot of us passengers stood around wise-cracking about the waste of time and effort spent in checking an infant and a senator.

I was able to speak with the TSA official a few weeks later. He reminded me that some terror groups have hidden bombs on babies and unsuspecting friends. We can't assume that people we know are willing to blow themselves up wouldn't smuggle explosives onto a baby, he said. He just chuckled about the senator. She passes the laws, he said. She ought to live by them.

He then explained that those who say screening should be more targeted toward people considered more likely to commit hijackings miss the point. Terrorists develop profiles too. If they discern a pattern like screeners looking for bombs, blades, or box-cutters, they'll change their tactics, perhaps to liquid explosives, to avoid fitting that pattern. That's why random searches are necessary.

Justin Oberman, the former TSA Secretary for Transportation Threat Assessment and Credentialing, told us this week that he believes TSA has frustrated a number of plots. This doesn't mean that terrorists have been caught by screeners, but that the screeners have so strengthened security that plotters have had to change plans.

Now, it's easy to ridicule the new regulations banning liquids. Is ice cream a solid substance or a frozen fluid? Is Silly Putty a stretchy solid or a dense liquid? Mr. Oberman explained that it's not that your bottle of shampoo is especially threatening, it's that 45,000 screeners stretched between airports in Guam, Barrow, Alaska and the U.S. Virgin Islands can't take the time to test every shampoo and toothpaste tube in the luggage of two million travelers a day, so they say leave them out.

The men and women telling us to please remove our shoes and belts may not make the kind of sensational news that MI5 and Scotland Yard made this week, but the rules that so often seem contradictory and incongruous, and the overworked bureaucrats who imperfectly and politely enforce them, help protect citizens too.

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Simon Says

Simon SaysSimon Says

NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small