We’re Bored, They’re Bored

Like anything that has become routine, screening for explosives and weapons at our airports has become all too predictable.  I’m sure I am not the only one who wonders if anything actually dangerous has been confiscated lately — apart from water bottles, shampoos, and skin creams – anything a real terrorist might use.

Clearly, there is a deadly serious problem we are trying to address, as we were reminded by the near miss on the Northwest flight to Detroit last week.  But the routine screening we are all subject to at airports seems one of the most frustrating and inept links in the chain of national security.

We need some better ideas.  One of the nuttiest appeared on The Daily Beast this week, a suggestion that passengers be trained in fighting back.  (See “Passengers Fight Back.”)  That proposal speaks more than anything to the frustration we all feel as we snake through long lines, take off our shoes, unpack our computers and so on.  Wouldn’t it just feel better if the government trained us to be vigilantes?  We could at least imagine ourselves poised to attack the attackers and vent our frustration?

On the other hand, one of the better ideas came from my friend, Charles Kadushin, a Sociologist who often travels to Israel.  He reminded me that at Ben-Gurion airport, security guards actually talk to passengers waiting to board their flights, while they look though their possessions.  They informally test out the consistency and accuracy of their narratives, size up their honesty, their motives for travel, while asking dozens of “innocent” questions.  It strikes me that such a conversation might well have detected something odd or worrisome about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man traveling alone who reportedly bought his ticket with cash and checked no luggage.

We have spent billions on sophisticated equipment, and seem poised to spend even more now that we understand the lethal potential of passengers’ underwear.  We do seem to prefer expensive technological solutions.

Sophisticated talk, on the other hand, doesn’t come cheap, as interrogators would need to be carefully trained.  They would have to learn to notice things that just don’t add up, that most of us just let pass, picking up the unconscious clues that conversations provide, while avoiding the pitfalls of their own projections and naïve assumptions.  But we do have lots of psychologists and a robust mental health industry that would be more than equal to the job.

A good conversation would not eliminate the need for baggage scanners and other methods to detect explosives, but it can be an invaluable aid in detecting dangerous passengers with something to hide.  It is an approach that has proved its usefulness in Israel, on the frontline of the war against terror.   In this case, we have good reason to suspect it would have worked as well.