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Security that's rude, repetitive, effective

Published August 20, 2006

LONDON - It was Thursday, Aug. 10, the day we first learned of the plot to blow up trans-Atlantic passenger jets.

Forewarned, I'd already disposed of all liquids, packed away all creams. But as I was about to board a United flight to London, a security screener at the gate in Washington Dulles rifled through my purse and, with a look both triumphant and reproachful, held up the contraband for all to see. A gellike substance! Banned! Verboten!

My Vaseline lip gloss. Into the bin.

Oddly, the gloss had made it through two previous screenings that very same day - the first at Tampa International, the second at Dulles itself in the initial round of checks.

You can chalk up those security lapses - if that's what they were - to the confusion that reigned as our multibillion dollar, post-9/11 airline security system struggled to reinvent itself in a few hours. But why hadn't U.S. and British security officials thought about the threat from carry-on liquids, creams and gels long before that Thursday?

It's not as if it hasn't been done before.

In 1994, Ramzi Yousef - mastermind of the first World Trade Center attack - smuggled nitroglycerine onto a Philippine Airlines jet in a bottle of contact lens solution. He remotely detonated it when he got off at a stopover; the blast killed a Japanese passenger, though the plane managed to land safely.

I've long wondered about the casual attitude toward carry-on liquids. How easy would it be to put gasoline in a Fruitopia bottle and ignite it at your seat, causing panic and, possibly, a catastrophic fire?

For nine years and countless flights, I've carried on bottled orange juice. Yet only once has anyone asked me to take a swig to see if I would gag or throw up because the bottle contained a dangerous substance.

One reason, of course, is that I don't look like a terrorist, or what most Westerners assume a terrorist looks like. I'm female, middle-aged, blond and fair-complexioned, not male, young, dark haired and olive-skinned.

When I go to Israel, though, it's an entirely different story.

A frequent target of terrorism, Israel has the world's tightest airline security. Surprisingly, Ben Gurion International doesn't have all the costly, gee-whiz technology found in many major U.S. airports. Far more valuable to Israeli security is human intelligence and the "profiling" that critics elsewhere find so objectionable.

It starts at the entrance to the airport grounds, where cars driven by Israeli Jews are usually waved on while those driven by Palestinians are generally pulled aside for careful inspection.

Inside the terminal, highly trained security personnel question every passenger but non-Jews far more closely than Jews.

As a foreign woman traveling by myself, I come in for the third degree. Am I a lonely heart who could be exploited by someone for nefarious purposes? Who paid for my ticket? Did anyone give me a gift?

As a journalist who often travels to the Palestinian territories, I warrant another line of questioning. Where did I go? Where did I stay? Whom did I interview? Again, did anyone give me a present? Did anyone have access to my luggage?

The questioning often seems repetitive and even rude, but it's designed to turn up inconsistencies that could reveal if the subject is lying. Body language is important, too - is the interviewee starting to sweat or nervously glance around?

This intense interrogation is followed by hand searches of purses, computer bags and other carry-ons. But unlike the case in U.S. or European airports, I've never once had tweezers, nail clippers or even scissors confiscated. If the Israelis are satisfied with your answers and demeanor, they apparently judge you safe to travel.

It's a great system - there hasn't been a successful hijacking in decades. And it's a system that would never work in the United States or Britain.

For one thing, Israel is a little country with a relatively small number of flights. All seven Israeli airports generate barely as much traffic in a day as Tampa International, let alone Atlanta or Heathrow. If you think lines are long now, expect to arrive at the terminal with sleeping bags if this sort of grilling were instituted in the West.

So how about Israeli-style profiling, as British authorities reportedly are considering? The 9/11 attacks, the 2005 London bombings and the recent foiled plot all involved young Muslim men. What's wrong with pulling them aside for extra screening? Why waste security resources on elderly grandparents and vacationing families with squealing babies?

The problem with profiling is that it's hard to know where to start and stop. How do you tell an olive-complexioned Greek from a Saudi or Pakistani in Western dress? How do you know an Irish Catholic girl isn't trying to smuggle something aboard for her Libyan boyfriend - as happened in 1986 when Anne Murray was caught at Heathrow with Semtex and a detonator hidden in a calculator? And how do you know that the young man with pale skin and the distinctly Western name of Donald isn't a fanatical convert to Islam - like one of those arrested in the alleged terror plot?

And would how do you avoid a new offense - TWA, or "Traveling while Asian" - as one of Britain's top Muslim police officials calls it?

The daunting challenge of profiling potential terrorists was demonstrated in a story last week in London's Daily Mail. The paper photographed several passengers waiting in a line to go through security at Heathrow, then interviewed each individual. They were a diverse group - old, young, several of them Christian - yet not a single person was in favor of profiling.

"I'm from Italy and a lot of people in my family have black hair and black skin and look Middle Eastern," said a female graduate student flying to Milan. "Passenger profiling is just stereotyping people and could end up making the problem worse."

And this from a Hungarian woman:

"If I was a Muslim and I didn't believe in terrorism, I don't think I would be happy about being checked more carefully than everyone else."

Judging from this admittedly limited sample, it would seem that airline passengers are willing to put up with a lot of hassle rather than impose extra burdens on an entire class of people just because they are of a certain religion.

It was a heartening display of tolerance. And it would be heartening if, in return, more Muslim leaders were like Shahid Malik in acknowledging that Islamic extremism is as great a threat to peace-loving, law-abiding Muslims as it is to everyone else.

"In this world of indiscriminate terrorist bombings, where Muslims are just as likely to be victims of terrorism as other British and U.S. citizens, we have an equal stake in fighting extremism," Malik, a Muslim member of Parliament, wrote in the Times of London.

"But more importantly, given that these acts are carried out in our name Islam, we have a greater responsibility not merely to condemn but to confront."

In the meantime, it would also be nice if instead of instilling a false sense of safety by confiscating my tweezers one year and my lip gloss the next, security officials were as creative as terrorists who imagine ways to destroy planes - and buses and trains and theaters - and came up with better ways to stop them.

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted by

[Last modified August 20, 2006, 06:24:05]

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