June 29 2011
Saving Grandmother Reppert
I've been thinking about Lena Reppert, the wheelchair-bound, 95-year-old grandmother who is suffering from leukemia and recently underwent a humiliating experience at the hands of the TSA. Mrs. Reppert's daughter said on Fox last night that the TSA forced her mother to surrender her adult diaper to airport officials (officials deny taking the diaper) for more detailed scrutiny.
As sorry as I feel for Mrs. Reppert's humiliation, this is simply the way airport security works. But it is not the way airport security should work. We should be looking for bad people, not bad things. Something that is dangerous in the hands of a potential hijacker is pretty harmless in the hands of, say, Mrs. Reppert. The vast hordes of citizens who daily submit to patting down, removing their shoes, and going off to a little enclosure to have their luggage checked if there is a suspicious lump, for the most part have absolutely no intention of taking over the plane and flying it into a building.
There is a way to prevent people like Mrs. Reppert from suffering such indignities: it's called profiling. In a piece on "fear of profiling," Jonah Goldberg writes:
Defenders of the TSA insist we can't abandon such mindlessness because if we do, clever terrorists will start using adult diapers as IEDs. Others say we know that profiling isn't effective because the Israelis don't use it.
Both lines of argument assume security personnel cannot be trusted to be much more than automatons, mindlessly acting on bureaucratic programming. If that's true of the current personnel, it's not because it has to be.
In fact, the reason the Israelis don't do simple profiling is that they use intelligent profiling conducted by highly intelligent screeners. At Ben Gurion International Airport, everyone's interviewed by security. Some are questioned at length, others quickly. The controlling variable is the "living judgment" - to borrow a phrase from Dune's Herbert - of the interviewers, and not wildly expensive full-body scanners and inflexible checklists.
Does anyone think that the personnel searching Lena Reppert honestly thought there might be a threat? Or is it more likely they were, machine-like, just doing what their garbage-in programming dictated?