Sunday, January 3, 2010, 11pm - I'm sitting at Newark airport waiting for my entire family -- my wife and nine children -- to disembark from an aircraft that landed hours ago. They arrived from Chicago where we all attended a beautiful family wedding. The kids have school tomorrow and would have had a mostly decent night of sleep. Except that some guy wandered backward through an exit and into the secure area of the Continental Airlines terminal, sending the entire airport into lockdown. (Sometimes I wonder if G-d is playing a trick on me by making me the Forrest Gump of current events. How did I ever get into this story?). My wife is calling me every ten minutes with an update that doesn't exist. The pilot will only say that they are delayed indefinitely. The entire terminal is being cleared out. All the departing planes are being unloaded and the passengers are having to go through security all over again. And all because one guy walked backward through an exit. They've scoured the airport and they can't find him.
This is the level of farce that passes for airport security here in the United States. Just over a week ago a Nigerian man sewed explosives into his skivvies and would have blown up hundreds of innocents except that his underwear thankfully failed to ignite. The fact that his super-credible banker Dad had gone to the American Embassy to warn that his son was an extremist nut -- just think of what it takes to blow up that part of your anatomy -- wasn't enough to get his visa revoked or get his name on a no-fly list. And here we are, just a few days later, and one of New York's three premiere airports is shut down because a man walked straight through a secure exit without being stopped. Nice to know we're being protected by the keystone cops.
Let's state the obvious. They can install the most sophisticated machinery in every American airport. They can X-Ray our boxers, they can check for explosives in every bodily orifice. We're still not going to be safe. It's not only people's bodies you're supposed to check but their backgrounds, their nationalities, and especially their eyes. Israel has the most secure airport in the world. I cannot imagine for a moment that a man with nitroglycerine in his undies would ever have made it on a plane. And why? Because they would have asked him some simple and direct questions with the purpose of studying his reaction as he responded. You're from Nigeria. You're going to the US. Why? How long are you staying? What is your purpose? And where is your return ticket? All along they would be scrutinizing not his bodily bulges but his twitches. What Israel excels at is not even ethnic profiling so much as psychological profiling.
But how can we ever hope to study people's suspicious behavior when the TSA agents are wasting their precious time on the most innocent of passengers who don't fit any kind of terrorist profile whatsoever. On the way to Chicago last week my eleven-year-old daughter's backpack somehow merited secondary screening. For ten minutes a TSA agent performed about seven explosive swab tests on every knickknack a young girl might carry on a plane. Her reading books seemed to be of particular interest. I could only roll my eyes and pray for patience. While this went on approximately fifty adults passed through without any secondary screening because my eleven year old occupied the rapt attention of the TSA. Could this have gotten any more ridiculous?
The answer, unfortunately, is yes. I travel often. The degree of silliness I have witnessed is staggering. I have seen seventy-year-old grandmas with hip replacements being combed by two TSA agents (who knows what those surgeons implanted there!) I once saw an octogenarian man with a cane forced to remove his neck brace as it was repeatedly swabbed for explosives.
Good you say. Terrorists come in many forms. And if we principally look out for young men from known terrorist countries to carry explosives on planes, the terrorists will quickly adapt and activate their sleeper-agent Edith from Valley View Retirement Home to detonate the nitroglycerine hidden in her dentures. I concede that indeed there have been unsuspecting young women who have been given bombs by their terrorists boyfriends to bring on planes, which is why we have to absolutely check everyone. But airport security is never going to be omniscient. And you need to focus your energy on those who pose the greatest threat. Nationality is not any real predictor of terrorists. Richard Reid was a Briton who was half-Jamaican. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is not from the Middle East but Nigeria. Timothy McVeigh was an American. But these and nearly every other terrorist bomber was a male of a certain age group. None were eleven-year-olds with schoolwork stuffed in their backpacks who happened to be travelling with eight other siblings. Would it not therefore make sense to concentrate on those who most fit the terrorist profile while letting up on the three-year-olds with their toy tractors?
Here is where Israel has a unique opening. A country that routinely gets terrible press because of how effectively its enemies portray it as repressive can come to the West's rescue with sound advice on how to secure airport and air travel. In the process the West will gain a greater understanding of the level of threat Israel is up against. I'm surprised that Prime Minister Netanyahu has not already given a major address sympathizing with the American people for the intended attack on Christmas Day and offering Israel's assistance in securing American air travel. Israel, after all, often dispatches humanitarian rescue teams to various parts of the world after an earthquake or a tsunami. Why not immediately dispatch a high-level security team to Washington, DC, to advise an increasingly hapless Homeland Security Administration about the right way to deploy limited resources in securing a vast air network? I realize that Israel is a tiny country and has to secure only one major international airport. But then again, unlike the United States it lives surrounded by terrorists yet has an exemplary record in protecting air travel.
Well, here I am at the end of my column and my family is still stuck on the plane. Aside from the subject matter this unfortunate nuisance has provided for this column, this has been a real hindrance to nine children who have school tomorrow. I can only hope that by the time next week's column is due I'm not still here waiting for the TSA to find a man who, in this age of extreme terror, simply waltzed into one of America's most guarded airports.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values Network and author, most recently, of The Michael Jackson Tapes. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.