Security Lines Are Interminable, But With Good Reason

May 21, 2016
Originally published on May 21, 2016 10:58 am

I flew back and forth to Chicago this week, and here were lots of passengers, myself included, who groused about the long, slow security lines: where schoolgirls have to kick off their pink running shoes, that can seem to take forever to unlace and re-lace; and convalescent senior citizens are made to limp out of their wheelchairs to walk through metal detectors and body scanners; and traveling salespeople who have to heft their bulky black cases onto conveyors, and shake their small, tired see-through bags of toiletries to show they're not carrying incendiary materials.

It's easy to groan and grow impatient if we think: when is the last time that a sixth grade student in running shoes, or an elderly woman in a wheelchair, or a software salesman who filched the shampoo bottle from his last hotel tried to bring down an airplane?

And then last year, an internal investigation by the Department of Homeland Security documented how their covert teams snuck banned items through the screeners 67 out of 70 times.

When I flew back yesterday morning, the day after EgyptAir flight 804 apparently fell from the sky, the lines were even slower. But there was a lot more silent resignation among us sullen lines of passengers. The loss of that aircraft, whether or not it turns out to be a terrorist act, reminded us why those security lines are there.

I am among those Americans who grew up ducking to the floor a few times a year to take shelter from a nuclear bomb. We look back at those times now and usually laugh to think that government officials ever advised citizens that a school desk could keep anyone safe from a nuclear fireball.

But while nuclear war was a real threat, the menace was hard to imagine. In these times, we have seen airplanes being taken over, or blown up in the sky.

There are security experts who have raised sound questions about whether those long lines, body scans, and occasional pat-downs do much to actually catch or deter bombers and hijackers. Some suggest that locks on cockpit doors, and the increased vigilance of passengers have done much more.

But terrorists can adjust their tactics more quickly than bureaucracies can change their policies. The TSA can do the right things thousands of times, and never get credit. But if they're wrong just once, they're disgraced; and it can cost lives.

Those guards who can seem so grim, slow, and unreasonable when you're in a hurry may cause you to miss your flight. But as we've been reminded again this week, that's not the worst thing that can happen.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

I flew back and forth to Chicago this week. And there were lots of passengers, myself included, who grouched about the long, slow security lines where schoolgirls who have to take off their pink running shoes can seem to take forever to unlace and relace, convalescent senior citizens are made to limp out of their wheelchairs to walk through metal detectors and body scanners and traveling salespeople, who have to heft their bulky black cases onto conveyors and shake their small, tired see-through bags of toiletries to show they're not carrying incendiary materials.

It's easy to groan and grow impatient if we think - when is the last time the sixth-grade student in running shoes or an elderly woman in a wheelchair or a software salesman who filched the shampoo bottle from his last hotel tried to bring down an airplane? And then last year, an internal investigation by the Department of Homeland Security documented how their covered team snuck banned items through the screeners 67 out of 72 times.

When I flew back yesterday morning, the day after EgyptAir flight 804 apparently fell from the sky, lines were even slower. But there was a lot more silent resignation among the sullen lines of passengers. The loss of that aircraft, whether or not it turns out to be a terrorist act, reminded us why those security lines are there. I'm among those Americans who grew up ducking to the floor a few times a year to take shelter from a nuclear bomb. We look back and those times now and usually laugh to think the government officials ever advised citizens that a school desk could keep anyone safe from a nuclear fire ball. But while nuclear war was a real threat, the menace was hard to imagine. In these times, we have seen airplanes being taken over or blown up in the sky.

There are security experts who've raised sound questions about whether those long lines, body scans and occasional patdowns do much to actually catch or deter bombers and hijackers. Some suggest that locks on cockpit doors and the increased vigilance of passengers have done much more.

But terrorists can adjust their tactics were quickly then bureaucracies can change their policies. The TSA can do the right thing thousands of times and never get credit, but if they're wrong just once, they're disgraced, and it can cost lives. Those guards who can seem so grim, slow and unreasonable when you're in a hurry may cause you to miss your flight, but as we've been reminded again this week, that's not the worst thing that can happen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.