Monday, July 19, 2004

The pen is mightier than the minature pocket knife, even aboard airplanes

(This was originally a comment response to Brett Marston's comment about having to relinquish his minature pocket knife before boarding a U.S. airplane. Brett writes: "...Anyone who is dangerous with that thing is going to be dangerous with a ball point pen...." The original post and comment thread is "When did we Americans Become Such Poor Diplomats? about TSA harassment of key diplomats at our airports. I have long argued our nation was founded on diplomacy. Ben Franklin's diplomatic successes in Paris astonished the British Empire and had much more to do with our existance as a nation than George Washington's military skills ever did. Watching Martin Sheen on The West Wing, it's clear we never lost those skills: Martin Sheen plays a President who always does what the viewing public would want him to do. Maybe it's not realistic politically, but as an image it's great diplomacy. The producers of The West Wing know how to project a positive image of the American presidency in a T.V. program that is watched the world over. I get chills looking at the opening sequence. So the diplomatic and media talent is still here in America; it just seems to have temporarily abandoned D.C. for California. But coming back to Brett's comments about ballpoint pens being more dangerous than his minature knife:)

Well, you know they say the pen is mightier than the sword (or the 3/4 inch = 2cm pocket knife.)

At one point they had all sorts of complex theories about how the terrorists used all sorts of tricks to construct a makeshift knife on the plane from plastics or razorblades or what have you.

Ultimately, I think they decided they just used ordinary pocketknifes that at that time were allowed if the blade was less than 3.5 inches (9cm), and the blades from these were simply used. Hence the new no knife rule (although 0.75inch/2cm is rediculous, I have to agree.)

As I write in my post, there is a "paranoia", if you will, on the left that all of this being done more for the sake of manipulating the American public than anything else. The government's advice in 2002, I believe it was, that triggered national duct-tape hoarding was along these lines.

MIT prof RMS had this opinion; Michael Moore has this opinion to some extent in his film. Journalist Bill Moyers has expressed similar fears.

And there is precedent for it. Eisenhower had schoolchildren practicing "duck and cover," but when advisors asked him about his own preparations for nuclear war, he explained that it was basically pointless --- duck and cover wouldn't protect anyone against the Soviet bombs and DC knew it. It was being done either to convince the public that something was being done or to convince them that danger of Soviet attack was very real.

Simarily, confiscating your 0.75 inch knife may be their modern equivalent of duck and cover. Useless, but manipulates the public.

I personally feel strongly not enough is being done to address the root causes of terrorism (See my earlier articles on Thurow's book and the relevance of Carl Sagan's Cosmos to global terror, among many others.), which we be a far greater precaution than confiscating minature knifes.

That being said, I believe they are getting better of late. (Or perhaps I am just getting better at dealing with them.)

Giving them a frequent flyer number a few days in advance of the trip (forgot those last minute business trips!) seems to help, even if you've never flown on that airline before. That way CAPPS I has your SSN (which they don't necessarily otherwise have AFAIK; SSN = U.S. Taxpayer ID number), and the frequent flyer number is one of the unclassified parts of CAPPS I, I believe. It gives them a few days to background checks.

In some sense that's why I'm less alarmed about CAPPS II than many people. I figure if the computer knows more about me (and the guys at the gate know less), there's less likely to be a problem. Of course, they have to put in a system to let people appeal if they are repeatedly wrongly flagged (e.g., they have a name that sounds similar to someone on a watch list.)

I avoid putting objects in my checked-in bags that I think will look strange on an X-ray machine (even if they look perfectly harmless in real life). I put them in my carry on (where they also would set off alarms, but at least no broken locks) or I don't take them with me at all now.

I do a few other things as well now that I think reduces the likelihood of secondary screenings that I won't describe here so as not to give terrorists tips on how to avoid secondary screenings.

Ultimately, though, much of this being done mainl to impress on the American public that SOMETHING is being done about terrorism, when the root causes are still being left unaddressed and we are not hardly any safer if not less safe.

Case in point: a matchbook was used by the shoebomber Reed to try to light his shoebomb. However, FAA rules now allow 3 matchbooks as you board the plane. Why? One source argues pressure from the tobacco industry. Forget safety. They want to make sure people can light up right away after deplaneing. But 2cm knifes? NO WAY!

And, yes, I do now hide my business cards before going through security, though.

The original post and comment thread is "When did we Americans Become Such Poor Diplomats?.