Common sense, not mood lights needed at airports

Published April 03, 2008
Next time you're going through security at the airport, you might just be able to chat with the screener about his hobbies. New signs around BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport's Concourse B will show federal security officers in civilian clothes and feature personal anecdotes.
"Bill is an avid gardener and enjoys fishing," perhaps. Think about that while Bill's patting you down.
"It's really intended to humanize our workforce," said Lauren Wolf, a Transportation Security Administration spokesman.

This is part of a kinder, gentler approach to air travel. Basically, the TSA knows you hate going to the airport. And it's working on it, with BWI as a test subject.

There will be new millimeter wave scanners, which critics have compared to a virtual strip search since security officers in a remote location can essentially see under your clothes (meaning Bill might not need to pat you down after all).

To soothe that possible indignity, the new "prototype" concourse also will have focus group-tested solutions like calming music and soothing blue and green lights instead of harsh fluorescents. Ms. Wolf said some elements of this package will be used at other airports.

This mix of futuristic technology and New Age mood lighting could make traveling less akin to waiting in line at a Soviet department store, and that can only be good.

But will we be safer? That's hard to say.

The TSA hopes a calmer checkpoint, with fewer anonymous orders over loudspeakers, will make a nervous, shifty-eyed terrorist stand out more clearly to the somewhat ominous-sounding "behavior detection officers" who apparently are watching our every move.

As a bonus, the calmer atmosphere should make the rest of us - i.e., non-terrorists - happier as we wait.

Maybe. But if the TSA really wants to show the public they're on our side, as Ms. Wolf said, how about getting rid of some of the stupid rules while they're at it?

Why are people so aggravated by the new security paranoia at airports and other places in what we're constantly reminded is a "post-9/11 world"? Most people don't mind rules; they mind rules that make no sense and accomplish little except annoy the general public.

And when it comes to silly security, this county - with an international airport, the nation's most supersecret eavesdroppers at the National Security Agency and the Naval Academy - is full of it (pun intended).

Take the "100 percent ID checks" about which visitors are now sternly warned by signs at the Naval Academy and Fort George G. Meade. Yes, they'll check your license. But they don't actually check it against anything; they simply check that you have one. News flash: the 9/11 hijackers had licenses, too.

And at the airport, of course, new rules seem to outlive any usefulness.

One would-be shoe bomber? We have to take our shoes off, apparently for all time. A plot to blow up flights with liquid explosives? No more bottled water for you, even if it the plot was vastly overblown by authorities and experts say it would be almost impossible to actually mix liquid explosives on an airplane, as pilot Patrick Smith pointed out in a New York Times essay last year.

I went to the airport the other day to ask passengers about the new scanning and other changes. Kara McDonagh of Baltimore, who flies out of BWI about five times a year, rolled her eyes.

"It's enough already, with the shoes and ... it's just stupid, " she said, sipping a coffee and waiting for a flight with friends. "We keep reacting to things. One guy had shoes on, so now we take our shoes off. Somebody had (a liquid explosives plot), so now they're going to take your yogurt."

Her friend, Yvette Santana of Baltimore, disagreed, saying, "It's going to make us safer."

And that, ultimately, is the reasoning behind such measures: They make some people feel better. They also allow the government to be seen as taking security seriously.

BWI, partly because of its proximity to Washington, has been the security guinea pig ever since 9/11. It was one of the first airports to get TSA protection, and officials say the new system should also make passengers feel safer.

"I think it highlights the fact that BWI is on the cutting edge of security," airport spokesman Jonathan Dean said.

But the best security is always the kind you can't see. The kind everyone knows about, when it consists of dubious rules mindlessly enforced, does little but instill a false sense of safety.

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