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Keep Your Shoes On: A Modest Proposal for Rational Airport Security

The rest of the world is laughing at us. Literally, in some cases -- when I reflexively took my shoes off at a security line in Berlin, the guard chuckled. Stupid American.
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The vibe has changed at the airport. In the first years after 9/11, there was a tension in the security lines: each time we took our laptops out of their bags, we remembered what happened in September. Whatever our politics, we grimly adjusted to the new reality.

Then came the War on Terror, in its expanded form, with its many political overtones. Gradually, as 9/11 moved from being a national tragedy to a justification for military activity, many of us came to suspect that the Department of Homeland Security was acting and reacting for political reasons -- raising threat levels and increasing security protocols not to protect us, but to keep us scared. Once a paranoid fantasy of civil libertarians, this has now been shown to be the case.

So, as we were ordered to remove our shoes, based on one thwarted hijacking attempt -- which probably couldn't have worked in the first place -- we started to scowl. As we watched wheelchair-bound elderly people hobbling through the X-ray, we started to wonder whether there wasn't a better way to keep our skies safe.

Now, on September 11, 2009, as I tramped through the security line here at Boston's Logan Airport, I've noticed a new tone emerging, which I've felt, eavesdropped on, and observed many times over the last few months: the unmistakable sense of a system that has outlived its usefulness. Not, to be sure, because the threats are no longer there. But because this is not the way to deal with them.

The rest of the world is laughing at us. Literally, in some cases -- when I reflexively took my shoes off at a security line in Berlin, the guard chuckled. Stupid American. More generally, we Americans need a reality check. If El Al, the Israeli airline with more reason to be cautious than any other, and more advanced in its anti-terrorism procedures than any other -- if this airline doesn't fret over a tube of toothpaste in my carry-on, then why must the TSA?

Of course, El Al also racially profiles. As regular passengers know, everyone boarding an El Al plane is quizzed by a mean security official whose sole task is to unsettle you enough so that, for one moment, he or she can see if you're up to no good. Not surprisingly, the quiz is harsher for Muhammads than for Michaelsons, which is why many Arabs avoid El Al at all costs. So perhaps theirs is not a system we want to emulate.

But surely there is some middle ground between America's absurd zero-tolerance policy and one which would lead to the kind of profiling we rightly find objectionable. And surely now, on this first 9/11 of the post-Bush era, is the time to find it.

Let's do the math. Thirteen minutes for every airline passenger in America (Michelle Obama's recent estimate -- adds up to 434,000 lost hours every day. At an average wage of $16.75, that means we're losing $7,269,500 in productivity every day while we stand in line and fret. (Of course, many in line are unemployed, but a disproportionate number also earn a whole lot more than $16.75 per hour.) That's $2.6 billion per year -- at a very conservative rate.

It's also dehumanizing, infantilizing, annoying, and worse. It may seem like a small thing, but the invasive procedures at every airport terminal keep us that much more afraid. No one likes to be searched, and while Terminal C is certainly not a checkpoint on the West Bank, it's one more incursion on our personal liberty by the state, one more coerced "consent" imposed upon all of us by unelected officials.

Of course, the TSA and HSD are just doing their jobs -- but the nature of those jobs inevitably causes its officials to be overprotective and overcautious. If just one terrorist smuggles explosives in his shoes, just imagine if you're the bureaucrat who recommended we stop the x-rays.

What's needed, then, is leadership. The Obama administration should replace zero-risk with a balancing of costs and benefits, just as many government agencies have done for years in environmental and other forms of regulation. Such balancing should take place on the macro-level, as policies are set, and on the micro-level, as experienced security professionals are given more discretion in individual cases.

The balance should, of course, remain very, very conservative -- because the costs of a single failure are huge. But a rational policy would give discretion to security guards not to force the little old lady out of her wheelchair, and not to confiscate sealed bottles of Poland Spring. It would allow us to keep our shoes on, take more than a shot glass of shampoo on the plane, and save us millions of dollars a day in lost time. It would also spare the humiliating, degrading sight of wheelchair-bound passengers being forced to hobble through metal detectors while their chairs are disassembled. Enough is enough.

Now, if a year's experience with a more discretionary policy yields a raft of unacceptable statistics -- profiling being the most obvious of wrongs -- it should be reexamined, or security guards can be better trained. But the danger of abuse is insufficient reason to maintain the current system; it's a reason to proceed carefully.

We now know that the Bush administration used our homeland security apparatus for its own political gain -- an outrage made all the more outrageous by its labeling of its opponents as unpatriotic, naive, or worse. These political motives distorted the process of securing our nation's safety in the skies. Now, as we pass the first September 11 of the Obama presidency, there is an opportunity for a fresh start. Responsible security professionals know how to do their jobs. Let's end zero tolerance, and let them do so.