Say what you want about America's post-Sept. 11 airport indignities. At least they have been ecumenical, without regard to position or power. That was the harsh lesson Michigan congressman John Dingell learned last week at Reagan National Airport in Washington.
Dingell is a ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He is a powerful force in the nation's capital but not powerful enough to keep a uniformed security employee from forcing him to drop his pants.
Dingell kept setting off alarms on the airport's metal detector, no matter how many items he removed from his pockets. The congressman explained that he has an artificial hip, which happens to be made of steel. He also has a metal knee brace and metal pins that have been surgically implanted into his ankles.
The tin man from "The Wizard of Oz" wouldn't have had a more difficult time at an airport. You could probably decorate Dingell with your child's best school papers, using refrigerator magnets. He is, in other words, a security screener's worst nightmare.
Still, according to the Washington Post, it wasn't until he refused to put his wallet on the conveyor belt that runs through an X-ray machine that the trouble started. Dingell had reasons to say no. Someone had stolen his wife's jewelry from such a conveyor belt a few weeks earlier. That didn't matter. He was asked to enter a side office and drop his trousers, just to make sure it was he, and not something he carried, that was made of steel.
Meanwhile, one day earlier in Tampa, Fla., a 15-year-old boy named Charles Bishop had walked onto a small airport tarmac without coming anywhere near a detector of any sort, stolen an airplane and crashed it into a tall downtown building. In his pocket was a note explaining his fondness for Osama bin Laden.
And there, laid bare for all to see, is the great inconsistency in America's homeland defense strategy. Commercial travelers are put through wringers, picked apart and examined like military inductees. Meanwhile, at roughly 18,000 small general-aviation airports nationwide, people enter everything from tiny single-engine planes to corporate jets with little or no security checks.
The discrepancy is understandable for two reasons. First, the Sept. 11 terrorists commandeered commercial jets to spread their mayhem. Second, the cost of outfitting every little airport in the country with federally employed security screeners, and with the equipment necessary, would make even a professional athlete blanch.
Still, can we really feel safe with anything less? Hasn't young Charles Bishop given us a glimpse of what could happen? Actually, he has, in a tragic way, reminded us of one important thing. Life cannot be made completely safe. The government cannot guarantee that tragedies won't occur, even on a grand scale.
Years ago, a police officer taught me an important lesson. I was on a ride-along, sitting next to him in a squad car on a busy downtown street. Pedestrians surrounded us on all sides. We were outnumbered, he pointed out to me. If a majority of the folks decided to break the law or to attack the police, there would be little anyone could do. But, he said, the overwhelming majority of people are law-abiding, and the police have to rely on them for help. It is the biggest weapon against crime.
So it is in the current crisis. The only sure defenses are the ears and eyes of law-abiding people who notice and report suspicious things.
Of course, it is possible other steps can and should be taken. But it isn't practical to clamp down on every small airport in the land. Not every tragedy has an official solution.
Still, the commercial aviation frisks will continue, as will long lines. They should, if for no other reason than that they are catching people. Incredibly, screeners in Chicago last week stopped a man with four pocketknives, a box cutter, two flares and a bottle of lighter fluid.
Occasionally, people will suffer indignities. Sometimes, despite a general understanding of the need for patience, people will become angry. In Baltimore, airport officials have hired professional entertainers to juggle or tell jokes to people who stand in long lines waiting to pass through security. On a recent trip there, I saw a Groucho Marx look-alike tapping a pretend cigar and asking the woman ahead of me to say the secret word. She did not look amused, but it did lighten the ordeal for many of the rest of us.
Rep. Dingell may not be so amused. But he, and the rest of us, can only hope the need for such measures will disappear some day soon.
Jay Evensen is editor of the Deseret News editorial page. E-mail: email@example.com