Columnists > Voices
Krieg Barrie

Line drills

Terrorism | Playing by the terrorists' rules wastes time, money and energy

Issue: "Boston Terrorthon," May 4, 2013

Through some clumsy scheduling, I ended up a couple of weeks ago with a three-hour layover in the airport at Buffalo, N.Y. It’s OK, I thought. If the clientele at a typical Walmart can respond thoughtfully to a few man-in-the-street questions (veteran WORLD readers are used to such occasional profiles in this space), then certainly these sophisticated patrons of air travel might have a little wisdom to share.

Besides, we were all just standing in line, shuffling our way—shoeless and beltless—through the security process. Nobody could go anywhere.

So, I thought I’d ask in the most inoffensive, even-handed fashion possible: “Excuse me, sir. Do you have a moment for me to quiz you about a couple of public policy issues?” To my surprise, in perhaps two dozen such approaches, almost no one turned the other way. These folks were ready to talk, ready to comment, ready with their opinions.

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“If you were President Obama,” I asked, “and this afternoon you could take care of just one big problem our country faces, what would that problem be?”

One or two folks mentioned North Korea and Iran and the nuclear threat. One or two brought up the national debt and the budget deficit. One spoke of global warming. No one mentioned education, immigration, the disintegration of the American family, or homosexual marriage.

Easily trumping any and all of those concerns, in the minds of these people, was this one. Waving their arms in every direction, these folks were focused on just one big concern: What might President Obama do to resolve the horrendous waste, delay, and frustration brought on by airport security?

The folks at the Buffalo airport, I think, are on to something. Not to minimize any of the other issues—but if our nation can’t do any better at policing the identities of who gets on our airplanes day after day, then we’re in pretty bad shape. In this particular war, we have virtually run up the white flag of surrender, conceding that as far as we can see into the future, we will play the game in the manner dictated by our enemy.

It is a colossally costly war. It would be bad enough if we had to account only for the out-of-pocket costs: There are the capital construction costs of the armor-plated steel, concrete, and glass structures that have made fortresses of our airports. There are the long conveyors for trays and the whiz-bang X-ray machines to examine our most inward parts. And there are the salaries of the tens of thousands of stern TSA foot soldiers, and their attendant bureaucracy. No one seems to know for sure—but even the beginning estimates are that all these costs add a minimum of 25 percent to every airline ticket purchased, and that such costs are with us as far as we can see into the future.

Far more stultifying, though, than all those outlays are the costs of wasted human energy. It’s easy to forget that it’s been only for the last decade that we’ve been required to show up at least a full hour earlier than flight time—and that a typical passenger can count on spending most of that hour standing somewhere in line. Virtually every aspect of loading a plane (and often unloading it as well) has security ramifications; each one adds to a passenger’s waiting time. The result is that my trip from Buffalo to Boston almost certainly took at least half an hour longer now than the same flight took a generation ago.

It didn’t take a whiz-bang X-ray machine to figure out what was rankling the folks I talked to at the Buffalo airport. “It used to be fun to fly somewhere,” Buffalo resident Irma Fouts told me. “It’s nothing but tedious now.”

I’m not pretending I have a recommendation for Mr. Obama about how to fix this problem. I’m just saying that a solution that puts people in long lines, with lots of time to get upset about it all, is no solution at all. Something I just learned in Buffalo is that one of the worst things you can do to folks, when you’re asking them to do something really uncomfortable, is to give them time to think about it.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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