American airports have been overflowing recently with National Guardmen in pairs patrolling the grounds. From their commando-like uniforms, they could well be about to board some combat plane on its way to Afghanistan.
However, these guardsmen are from civilian reserves and don't really know what they're doing wandering among passengers' suitcases. Their purpose is to generate a secure atmosphere in airports - in fact, their very presence often merely increases tension.
America is still living on the edge of its collective seat. The New York Times continues to print every day photographs of people killed in the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers two months ago. The anthrax scare may be fading, but Americans are finding it difficult to get used to the idea that they may have to get used to living with terror.
The plane that crashed into Queens yesterday hit a neighborhood that lost 90 residents, many of them firemen and policemen, in the World Trade Center assault. The neighborhood is home to many Irish Catholics and as many Orthodox Jews, and is an average "good neighborhood." Even before officials could determine whether the disaster a technical failure or a terrorist attack, the authorities closed all bridges and tunnels leading into New York City, and the city's still fresh trauma resurfaced. Reports of heart-wrenching personal tragedies swept the city through the media - yet again.
Regardless of the reason for this plane crash, the tragedy is a warning to airport security in America. In the past ten days, I have flown 12 times to destinations from New York to San Francisco and from Toronto to Miami. Security procedures in the airports are often dubious, sometimes even scary in their negligence.
The standards vary from airport to airport and most inspections are done only by metal detectors. Travelers must show up two hours before their flight but security inspections usually don't last that long. Passengers are never asked personal questions, the standard El Al procedure. This would probably not be a very efficient procedure in the United States, where the population is so heterogenous. In fact, most of the security guards are immigrants from the Third World and its doubtful they could easily pass such personal interrogation themselves.
Passengers are never asked to open their bags - the security procedures assume that baggage is checked in the X-ray machines. Here and there a random passenger is brought aside for a double check. I was myself twice detained by security officers wearing rubber gloves. In the first case, the inspector was quite thorough, and even ran his metal detector over my shoes. But in another airport, the inspector's main concern was whether I carried a finger-nail clipper, which for some unknown reason has been banned from planes.
Several weeks ago, I crossed the border by car from Canada to the United States, at Niagara Falls. No one inspected the car. I could easily have smuggled Osama bin Laden himself through in the trunk.
I came across the most unmitigated idiocy, however, when I went to get my boarding pass from the automatic machine at the airport. The machine asks you to fill out a form by pressing "yes" or "no" buttons on the screen. It confirms the flight number and destination, and answers various procedural questions - such as whether you packed your baggage yourself. The, the last question the computer poses to citizens of the world, before they receive final permission to enter the United States, is whether or not they belong to a terrorist organization. (Answer "yes" or "no").
The conventional wisdom these days is that Americans have stopped flying not because they're scared, but because the long security procedures are too annoying. The reality is that flying in America has become unbearable because security procedures are so idiotic.
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