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Toothpaste Terror In The Skies

Restrictions on liquids of any kind are posted at the security checkpoint at the British Airways terminal of JFK Airport, Thursday, Aug. 10, 2006 in New York.
AP
This commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.



Freeze, hairball! Drop the Crest and put your hands behind your back.

The ban on Ban, lip gloss, Sprite, contact lens solution and hair conditioner is somewhere on the ludicrous side of absurd. It is kabuki security, not real protection. It is a serious nuisance. For business travelers, it's a costly, stressful waste of time.

But what I really don't get is why people are so accepting and unquestioning about the Great Fluid Ban.

I suppose I have some passing sympathy for the argument that not being able to carry on luggage is a small inconvenience that could prevent a large catastrophe. If a plane went down because of exploding aftershave, yes, I would feel bad about my whining.

But those kinds of "what if" arguments have only emotional merit, not rational or practical. The truth is, the criteria used to decide what security measures are to be used and how to balance protection versus civil liberties and practicality is inconsistent, political and bureaucratic.

In the case of the Great Fluid Ban, consider this: If our security experts truly believed potent explosive devices could be concocted from carry on liquids, wouldn't they have installed security measures long ago? Shouldn't they have?

Are we to imagine there aren't great minds at Homeland Security who spend their time thinking of all the possible ways evil-doers could blow up planes? Of course there are. Are we to imagine they never thought about making bombs with stuff in spray cans? Sure they did. And they surely made rational, practical assessments of the risk.

But once a threat – no matter how impractical or unlikely – becomes publicized, the equation changes and rational, practical risk assessment is replaced by bureaucratic self-protection. If a shampoo bomb were to have gone off a month ago, the bureaucrats would have said, "Who knew?" They can't say that now because of the London plot. So the Great Fluid Ban has been decreed. It's the Law of Pampers, public policy constructed to cover rear ends.

This is also why you have to take off your shoes at security checks. Once they caught a lunatic who had tried to put explosives in his sneakers. By the Law of Pampers, all shoes must now be screened. What if the shoe bomber had been caught instead with swallowed balloons full of plastic explosives like drug mules use?

Legitimately difficult conflicts surround the question of whether to employ what is unfortunately now-called racial profiling. Many security experts – and purveyors of common sense – believe that an essential, effective and efficient security precaution is to screen Muslim men more closely.

"If you have 10 Muslims that we know have been trying to blow up our planes, why are you going to pick on an old Jewish lady sitting in a wheelchair? It doesn't make sense," the former head of security for Israel's airline told my CBS News colleague, Bob Orr.

So why do we ban Herbal Essence while giving a mother traveling with kids the same checks as a young Arab male? In the past 20 or 30 years, only Muslim men have tried to blow up airplanes. So isn't it crazy not to be realistic about that. If there were a crime spree by white male teens in Green Bay, would it be racial profiling for the police to keep an eye on white male teens?

Would subjecting an individual to added screening based solely on physical appearance or data garnered from passports or other sources be a substantial civil rights violation? Is it a violation profound enough that it should trump security concerns? I not only don't have a settled opinion on this, I can't find coherent, unemotional criteria for analyzing the competing concerns.

But I do think there is something endearing and commendable about our political culture that is so reluctant to use racial profiling right now.

On the other hand, I am mystified by our tolerance for the incompetent, politicized and inefficient charade that is now masquerading as transportation security. Apparently the illusion of security is enough.



Dick Meyer is the editorial director of CBSNews.com.

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By Dick Meyer