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We have once again been subjected to a mess of bombast in the downstream media, this time on the topic of the narrowly averted terror attack of underwear bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, evidently not another Swedish Lutheran jihadist. Talking heads deftly posit, keenly elucidate, cleverly analyze and deconstruct the nuances and counter-nuances of airplane security. “When is profiling profiling? Does it work? Should it? Why doesn’t it? And what does it really mean?”
As we nervously shuffle through the airport lines, waiting for the next attack, we now learn that the touted “full body scanners” are essentially taking nudie pics. Not very artful ones, by the way, and in detail so rich I am surprised the consumer market for portable models hasn’t already flourished. Naturally, you are not allowed to review the pictures of your naked body. They are to be seen only by the strange man in the corner. Perhaps you thought it was humiliating enough to take off your shoes and submit to a frisking.
To be sure, those “scanning” jobs will become very attractive to persons with certain unsavory proclivities. Maybe that is one of those subjects best left un-discussed, like the enduring problem a certain high-line national department store has in keeping foot-fetishists from taking jobs in the ladies shoe section. Facts are facts, however. And all of them, which is to say the creepy naked pictures, the whole die, die, infidel pigs! thing, and the fact the TSA might at any time once again release its entire security procedures manual to the world over the Internet, makes for very good news for the videoconferencing industry, and very bad news for us.
We would like to keep flying, however, and will probably submit to all sorts of humiliations to the point of full body cavity searches, which is the next logical step on our “reactive” approach to security. At the same time, we must heed the words of master negotiator Herb Cohen: A tactic perceived is no tactic. “Blanket” approaches, such as raw profiling, can allow our enemies a clear playbook for defeating security measures. Recall if you will that the “shoe bomber” and “underwear bomber” were Anglo-Saxon-Jamaican and Nigerian, respectively.
So until DHS implements a “do fly” list, comprised of docile (if impatient) law-abiding patriots of all faiths, we should look to an existing, tested, supremely effective security model capable of securing our skies and cities, and giving us some degree of personal comfort.
We should emulate El Al, the national airline of Israel.
El Al (according to Global Traveler magazine in 2008, for instance) is the world’s most secure airline. This is both despite, and because, her planes are assuredly the highest value terrorist targets in the air.
Though El Al incorporates many of the same screening techniques to which we have become accustomed (and more than a few more “behind the scenes” processes and procedures, ever-changing as El Al anticipates and adapts to new threats), the “security experience” for El Al passengers is quite different from that of other airlines. For those of us who might qualify for an imaginary “do fly” list, at least, the difference is this:
The El Al security experience is comfortingly intimate, as opposed to humiliating.
El Al security is not entirely devoid of that familiar “cattle stockyard” feeling, plodding forward in a line, holding your shoes and presenting your papers. There is some of that, but many travelers report that these procedures somehow seem far less intrusive than the anonymous and mechanical stripping, sniffing and prodding which is presently our lot. How can this be? Because El Al incorporates something else: a personal touch. It is a brief personal interview for every passenger, Muslim, Christian, Jew or otherwise.
Before boarding, a few simple, and a few not-so-simple questions are asked, directly, of every El Al traveler. Surely, different people are asked different sorts of questions. They are nominally personal questions, yes, but – and perhaps I only feel this way because I am not a terrorist – they do not seem unnecessarily intrusive. Some questions are specific, and some are not so specific. The questioners, in my experiences, are remarkably pleasant and kind. One gets the impression the interviewers are highly trained – watching for micro-expressions, hidden cues and many other special signs as they listen – but also highly courteous. In a word, respectful.
The brilliant and worldly Rabbi Dr. Gerald Meister told me once: “Political correctness is the enemy of personal respect.” I fully understood his meaning when I first flew El Al.
The whole process (for me, at least) takes less than a minute. But that’s not the best part. The best part, by far, is the knowledge that every other passenger on the aircraft has been through the same brief, personalized process.
We do not yet, collectively, wish to commit the necessary resources to implement all, or even most, of El Al’s counterterrorism techniques and hardware. Even a cursory comparison between El Al’s human resources and our own suggests we might have difficulty applying its level of experience and brain power to our enormous, extraordinarily complex airline system, at any price. But what about training highly skilled, cleared interviewers?
It would be expensive. But it might not be as expensive, for instance, as hiring the team of pimple-faced low-speed yo-yo operators who confiscated my custom-made marlinspike and put it in their “special keepsake” pile a few years ago. That single move directed many tens of thousands of my company and personal dollars to Amtrak, and I’m sure I am not alone. But I digress.
There is an unusual and pleasant consequence of El Al’s intimate approach to security: many El Al travelers, myself included, report that there is a special kind of quiet, friendly camaraderie among passengers. One could argue that it’s just a fraternal warmth one feels when one is in the “orbit of the Holy Land,” but there are many “holy lands” on a passenger roster as heterogeneously diverse in race, religion and politics as Jerusalem itself. What unites El Al passengers is neither collective victimhood, “TSA Stockholm Syndrome,” nor a shared taste for kosher airline food. Rather it is a unique sense of self-interested, very personal and very mutual involvement in the security process.
El Al to all outward appearances should be the most dangerous airline in the world, but it is, in fact, the safest. And the airline’s most apparent point of difference, for passengers of all colors and faiths, is that little interview.
When you’re seated on that flight, by the way, and your meal comes, you’ll notice that your knives and forks are not made of plastic. They are made of steel.
El Al, you see, is not focused on detecting nail clippers, marlinspikes or silverware.
It is focused, like a laser, on detecting terrorists.
Franklin Raff is senior executive producer for Radio America and creative director of Raff Radio Marketing Group Inc.