The Security Fixation

FLYING

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated... Fourth Amendment,   U.S. Constitution

IN JANUARY 1973, the U.S. government--specifically, the Federal Aviation Administration--ordered every airline to search all passengers and their luggage, at every airport in the country, prior to every flight. It was a sweeping and unprecedented edict, but the order was not controversial at the time and has not become constroversial in the intervening 21 months. Watergate provided other constitutional issues to worry about, all of them more dramatic than airport security. But now might be a good time to consider the implications of this sort of blanket screening system.

The FAA ordered the mandatory searches for impeccable reasons: Aircraft hijacking was rampant (35 attempts in 1972), and the highly-touted Air Marshall program--1300 armed guards riding shotgun, incognito, on commercial flights--was considered expensive, ineffective and potentially dangerous to passengers' safety.

"I firmly believe that the place to stop hijackers is at the aircraft's boarding gate," said FAA Director John H. Shaffer. So did most people, apparently, for there were no significant protests when 007-like X-ray and metal detection gadgets appeared in airports in February 1973. Americans generally considered, and still consider, such blanket security to be a small price to pay for an end to hijackings.

There have been no successful hijackings since February 1973, and only a scattering of attempts. But how much did these results cost? In dollars, the price has ben enormous: more than $300 million per year, paid for in part by a 34 cent surcharge on all airline tickets. In a constitutional sense, the cost has been equally high. Consider the case of John K. Muelner, who tried to board an airplane in Los Angeles during week one of what the FAA calls "100-per-cent-security." Muelner's appearance and manner matched the airline's "skyjacker profile" and he was searched with special care. Security agents found 76 grams of heroin and more than half a kilo of marijuana in his suitcase. In his pants pocket they discovered a vial of hashish oil. Muelner was arrested, but subsequently freed by a federal judge who ruled the search was unconstitutional. The judge said there was no probable cause to believe Muelner was carrying drugs, and that the agents were required to warn him that he could refuse to be searched (although he could not then board the plane.)

MUELNER WAS LUCKY: other victims of these "bonus" arrests were tried and convicted. There are no firm figures, but by reliable estimates, more than 80 per cent of arrests stemming from airport searches have nothing to do with aircraft security. The contraband seized in these cases is drugs and pornography, not guns and knives. (The FAA has now posted signs in the 531 U.S. commercial airports telling passengers of their right to avoid searches).

Bur airport searches are not objectionable only because of horror-story arrests that result from them. A passenger whose luggage is X-rayed or opened, and who must either submit to a search of his person or walk through a metal detector, should be as outraged as a passenger dragged off to jail for having a joint in his toilet kit.

Airport searches operate on an interesting premise: that the government can prevent crime by searching innocent people to make sure that none of them is a criminal, or has the means to commit a crime. The premise, of course, is demonstrably correct, as the absence of hijackings the last 21 months proves. Logically, the government should apply this sound theory of crime prevention to other danger areas. Why not search people going into banks? That would undoubtedly end bank robberies. To prevent both non-violent shoplifting and violent hold-ups, why not search customers in stores and supermarkets? They do it in Belfast.

If logic figured in the decision to implement airport searches, they would obviously be extended to other public areas. If considerations of constitutionality and personal liberty were important, such searches would end. There is instead an emotionalism at work, fueled by a general public fear of flying. Passengers are willing to look the other way when confronted at the airport by the trappings of a police state.

And while they are looking the other way, passengers do not notice that the deranged people who once hijacked planes are probably doing deranged things in other places; that the millions spent each year on passenger screening could better be spent on mental health programs to help such people; and that the federal government has now conditioned Americans, in at least one public place, to surrender themselves and their belongings for manual and electronic searches, even when they are suspected of no crime. Is airport security really worth this price?