The government's dopey airplane carry-on bans.

Military analysis.
April 26 2002 6:35 PM

Flights From Reality

The government's dopey airplane carry-on bans.

On each leg of a recent plane trip I had items confiscated at airport security checkpoints. Going, the offending item was a can opener, and coming back it was the two-and-a-half-inch tweezers in my first-aid kit. When I asked for an explanation from the security supervisor who made the final call on the tweezers, she said, "We could never let you bring anything pointed like that on board."

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Treating tweezers as a viable hijack weapon simply screams the government's obtuseness about aircraft security. Go ahead, try to imagine a scenario in which you could use tweezers to keep 200-plus passengers at bay while forcing the pilot to do what you want.

Last fall, the FAA produced a long list of previously permitted items such as fireworks and pocketknives that could no longer be carried on board planes. According to information released by the Dallas Fort Worth Airport, an even more detailed list (requires Adobe Acrobat) was issued by the FAA in February that helpfully advises passengers not to bother trying to bring automatic weapons, hand grenades, blasting caps, or meat cleavers. Also banned are corkscrews and toy transformer robots. But the list says the following are permitted (once they've been inspected to ensure they don't conceal a prohibited item): baseball bats, hockey sticks, horseshoes, knitting needles, and umbrellas. Now, which would you be more afraid of in the hands of a would-be hijacker: tweezers or a hockey stick?

The Transportation Security Administration, the newly minted federal agency now in charge of such matters, says it's going to release an expanded and more detailed list soon. And it may already be operating under new rules, because recent press reports indicate sporting equipment like baseball bats and golf clubs must now be put in checked luggage. But there's a problem with this whole approach. In addition to the obvious no-nos like axes, brass knuckles, and dynamite (all on the February list), there's a practically endless array of ordinary items that can also be quite dangerous. Pens and pencils, knitting needles, credit cards, combs, and keys can be used to gouge eyes or puncture the throat. Belts and towels can be used to strangle. Perfume, mouthwash, deodorant, or hair spray dispensed from a spray or pump bottle can be used to painfully blind. Ditto for hot coffee or cocoa from a thermos. An umbrella can serve as a very effective club, as can a bottle of wine or a tightly rolled-up magazine. If the TSA operated with a list that took all such possibilities into account, passengers would be forced to board empty-handed, wearing only a government-issued hospital gown.

Yes, there should still be a list of banned items, but the ban should stop at this bright line: The item is not only potentially dangerous but also dangerous to more than one person at a time and obviously so. Even though a pair of glasses can be used to perforate someone's trachea, a crowd of passengers would take some convincing of this, and even if a would-be hijacker used them this way on one person, he couldn't then hold off a planeload of people with them. On this approach, automatic weapons would still be out, but tweezers would be back in.

But the main effort should be put into passenger profiling and interviewing. Pace the TSA, the real key to airliner security isn't keeping items off planes that can be dangerous in the wrong hands—it's keeping the wrong hands off.

Scott Shuger is a Slate senior writer who spent five years in the U.S. Navy and served overseas as an intelligence officer.