Last weekend I was to give a speech in Boston on Saturday evening. We decided to drive from Washington, D.C. We split the trip into two days, the first to mid-Long Island; the second from there to Boston. It rained both days, slowing the pace. There was extra Columbus Day holiday traffic. Leaving the Throgs Neck Bridge toll plaza in Westchester County we encountered a stroke of genius by some construction zone planner: Four lanes merged into three. Nothing unusual about that; however, a block later the three merged into one and there was an on-ramp in the midst the merge. In Saturday-morning-errands traffic, we spent an hour going one mile. In cumulative time, the trip north -- which would normally take about eight hours -- took 15-plus. There was, however, one blessing in all this tedious road time: No airport security to go through.
The airlines are hemorrhaging millions of dollars a day and the federal government seems intent on making air travel as inconvenient as possible. Meanwhile, polls tell us that travelers are turning to railroad and auto travel in increasing numbers in order to avoid airports.
None of us wants a radical Islamist carrying box cutters or shoe bombs to get aboard airliners, so we are all willing to put up with tightened security. Not all of the measures make sense. One of the least logical is the "random" screening at boarding gates. By the time he or she reaches the gate, each passenger has gone through a metal detector and, in many cases, personal inspection by "wand." The subsequent random screening is so random -- for fear that young Arab men will be "profiled" -- that recently a friend's grandson, age 4, was selected. The lad was carrying a small bag with a toy in it. Fortunately, his aunt, not randomly selected, was standing by to calm the befuddled and frightened child. Elderly ladies are frequently trapped in this process, perhaps because they are suspected of carrying hat pins.
In major airports the magnetometers -- metal detectors -- are set at such a sensitive level that the only sure way to avoid being pulled aside for "wanding" is to wear nothing but underwear, a bathrobe and slippers. After removing watch and belt -- besides emptying all pockets -- I am routinely pulled aside and told that my loafers contain a metal shaft in the sole. One inspector told me that most shoes have such shafts. He didn't look to see if I had fuses sticking out of the backs of my shoes or if I was carrying matches with which to light them.
While this rigmarole may harvest a certain number of potential weapons, it is not administered with consistency. In August I went through two smaller airports in a Western state where the metal detectors were set much lower. Belt, watches and shoes did not set them off.
Snake lines leading up to the metal detectors have speeded the process at most large airports, and the level of training under the new federalization of security personnel has resulted in significantly more courtesy than in days gone by. The charm school training, however, seems to have caused some of the inspectors to go overboard. Recently, after tripping the buzzer at San Francisco, I encountered an inspector who said, patronizingly, "Now here's what we're going to do. First, we're going to spread our arms out." "We?" I asked. "Are we both going to do this -- by taking turns." "No," he said, grumpily. "We," it turns out, was not intended to be First Person, Plural, but Second Person, Singular.
There is hope that the number and scope of inconveniences will decline. Hope comes in the person of James Low, new Undersecretary of Transportation for Security. The first thing he did was dispense with that brace of questions, "Have your bags been with you at all times?" and "Has anyone asked you to carry anything aboard for them?" Would-be hijacker-murderers are going to answer "Yes," and "No," respectively, so the questions served no purpose.
Mr. Loy, a former admiral and commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, is used to using common sense. He compiled a Stupid Rule Review to examine some of the security mandates which create inconvenience without improving security. The two rote questions were the first to go. He has also lifted the ban on nail clippers (they could not be used as weapons in any case). And, he is considering dropping the random searches. But if he does, how will they catch rogue grandmothers and four-year-olds?
Peter Hannaford is the publisher of The American Spectator.