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Security Lines Are Interminable, But With Good Reason

Passengers at O'Hare International Airport wait in line to be screened at a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint.
Scott Olson
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Passengers at O'Hare International Airport wait in line to be screened at a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) checkpoint.

I flew back and forth to Chicago this week, and here were lots of passengers, myself included, who groused about the long, slow security lines: where schoolgirls have to kick off their pink running shoes, that can seem to take forever to unlace and re-lace; and convalescent senior citizens are made to limp out of their wheelchairs to walk through metal detectors and body scanners; and traveling salespeople who have to heft their bulky black cases onto conveyors, and shake their small, tired see-through bags of toiletries to show they're not carrying incendiary materials.

It's easy to groan and grow impatient if we think: when is the last time that a sixth grade student in running shoes, or an elderly woman in a wheelchair, or a software salesman who filched the shampoo bottle from his last hotel tried to bring down an airplane?

And then last year, an internal investigation by the Department of Homeland Security documented how their covert teams snuck banned items through the screeners 67 out of 70 times.

When I flew back yesterday morning, the day after EgyptAir flight 804 apparently fell from the sky, the lines were even slower. But there was a lot more silent resignation among us sullen lines of passengers. The loss of that aircraft, whether or not it turns out to be a terrorist act, reminded us why those security lines are there.

I am among those Americans who grew up ducking to the floor a few times a year to take shelter from a nuclear bomb. We look back at those times now and usually laugh to think that government officials ever advised citizens that a school desk could keep anyone safe from a nuclear fireball.

But while nuclear war was a real threat, the menace was hard to imagine. In these times, we have seen airplanes being taken over, or blown up in the sky.

There are security experts who have raised sound questions about whether those long lines, body scans, and occasional pat-downs do much to actually catch or deter bombers and hijackers. Some suggest that locks on cockpit doors, and the increased vigilance of passengers have done much more.

But terrorists can adjust their tactics more quickly than bureaucracies can change their policies. The TSA can do the right things thousands of times, and never get credit. But if they're wrong just once, they're disgraced; and it can cost lives.

Those guards who can seem so grim, slow, and unreasonable when you're in a hurry may cause you to miss your flight. But as we've been reminded again this week, that's not the worst thing that can happen.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.