The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Monday, November 15, 2010


Anyone who flies commercial has seen it happen. You’re at the TSA security checkpoint and you seen one or more TSA agents doing a pat down of an elderly man or woman. Saw it yesterday, myself.

Maybe the senior had a hip or knee replacement that set off the metal detector, or maybe they looked suspicious (huh?), but you see it all the time. As the minutes tick by (and the security line crawls forward at a glacial pace), you watch as questions are asked, arthritic arms are raised and lowered, and old legs are spread. There’s often a look of confusion in the senior’s eyes.

Yet the TSA argues that terrorists [the TSA never uses an adjective (e.g., Islamic) to describe the terrorists], might very well “use” an elderly person to transport a bomb onto a plan. Sure, I suppose that’s a possibility, but security involves risk assessment, so what, exactly, is the risk of that happening? It’s really fairly easy to develop a risk assessment for the “senior threat,” yet I’ve never seen one published. Probably classified. But let’s do a little math.

Approximately one billion people fly each year. Of those, let’s assume that 10 percent can be considered to be seniors. That’s 100 million seniors in the air each year. How many airplane-related terrorist incidents involving perpetrators who were non-Arabic seniors have occurred over the past 10 years? How many instances of a senior being found with an explosive or other threatening device have been uncovered at a security checkpoint? The answer to the first question is, I suspect, zero. The answer to the second, at least based on news accounts, is also close to zero.

So the odds against this happening, at least based on past experience, are in the neighborhood of 1 in 100 million. But regardless of the odds, the TSA dedicates one or two people for 3 or 4 minutes to some senior. The person-hours wasted on this activity add up over time, but more importantly, the resources dedicated to the senior could be better dedicated to a group that fits the terrorist profile.

But wait, profile! Can’t do that. Wouldn’t be fair, would it?

Islamists have created an environment in which efforts to thwart their terrorist colleagues inconvenience tens of millions of Americans each day. Long lines, delay, body scans, etc., etc. But rather than trying to reduce the inconvenience a bit and be considerably more effective in uncovering threats (the whole idea, I thought), we avoid the most effective of all tools—profiling. If you’re young and fit the general profile of a terrorist (e.g., nationality, travel origin), and exhibit other “tells” known to all security services, you might be worth another look.

Is that fair? No, it isn’t, but neither is body-searching a 80-year grandmother because she has a hip replacement.

Profiling will inconvenience many innocent people. But all of us are inconvenienced now, and terrorists still get through. Maybe it’s time to use a method that is demonstrably more effective than forced (artificial?) randomness. But then again, political correctness trumps reality every time.