Heed lessons on terror, safety

Heed lessons on terror, safety

So we're back to major inconveniences in air travel, thanks to the serious attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to detonate some sort of explosive on a Detroit-bound plane on Christmas Day.

Long lines at the airport brought on by more extensive searches of luggage and clothing. Restricted in-flight movement around airplane cabins. A general sense that any of the thousands of passengers who board and deplane every day in the United States could be a terrorist, waiting for an opportunity.

In some ways, it's just a reality check. America has enemies, and they aren't confined to the battlefields in Iraq or Afghanistan. This is what terrorism is about: making ordinary citizens fear that their lives are in danger while they do ordinary things.

But there's at least a minor dissonance here between the action and the reaction.

Abdulmutallab was a self-identified Al Qaeda sympathizer who was on a watch list, thanks to the fact that his father alerted security agencies in Britain about his son's disturbing recent behavior. And he walked onto Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit without so much as a question being asked, or an extended search of his person.

That shouldn't have happened. It's true that the list Abdulmutallab was on, the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, has more than a half-million names and is, alone, not sufficient reason to deny someone access to fly.

But when a passenger presents a boarding pass at an airport, his or her presence on that list should certainly be enough of a red flag for airlines to apply heightened screening procedures. And Abdulmutallab had been banned from entering Britain, yet another reason for his name to raise concerns when it shows up on a passenger list.

Increasing physical searches or in-flight restrictions have no effective value if airlines and governments don't use the information they have to focus them on passengers whose histories cry out for suspicion.

Beyond that issue, another one lurks at the Transportation Security Administration, which has not had a permanent leader confirmed since President Barack Obama was elected.

Obama waited until September to nominate Erroll Southers, the assistant security chief at Los Angeles International Airport. But Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., has compounded the delay by placing on Southers' confirmation a "hold," which allows any single senator to prevent a nomination from coming to the Senate floor.

DeMint is concerned about Southers' views on whether TSA screeners should be unionized. But as the Christmas Day attack -- and another recent incident in which the TSA accidently released a trove of sensitive information about its procedures -- show, that ought not be the paramount issue.

Americans will just have to put up with the aggravations of heightened security. That's life. And there's no such thing as being too safe.

But the proper use of information and the strict following of established procedure are the best antidote to another terrorist attack. Airlines and the government bear the responsibility for enforcing those procedures.

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