TCS Daily

High Profile

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - June 18, 2004 12:00 AM

I drove to Baltimore-Washington International Airport the other day to pick up my wife and her sister on their return from a trip to Hawaii. As I threaded my way through construction barriers to the "Arriving Passengers" area I came upon the familiar scene. Signs admonished me that there was no parking or stopping except for the "immediate" loading of luggage and passengers.

Of course this admonition is ignored by one and all to the extent possible. You know the ritual. You slow your car, scanning the area in front of the glass doors for the familiar face of your friend or loved one. There are always a number of cars at the curb with trunks open. In some cases, people are loading luggage in these trunks as they exchange hugs and chatter about their flights.

In other cases, drivers who have arrived early put on their flashers and sit at the wheel peering toward the doors and glancing from time to time in their mirrors to see if a security guard or airport policeman is approaching to tell them to move on.

A few drivers interpret the signs literally and readily move on, circling the airport parking area in hopes their passengers will be at the curb on the next pass through.

Others find an opening at the curb and try to stay put, hoping the cop will cut them some slack and let them stay at the curb a few more minutes. I tried to join the latter ranks. My wife was at the curb when I arrived. She had her carry-on bag, but her checked bag and those of her sister had not tumbled out on the United Airlines carousel yet.

I slowly loaded her bag in the trunk, carefully arranging and rearranging it as Ginny went back to the baggage area to help her sister. I checked my watch as I leaned in the trunk, and, as it turned out, I was able to milk more than four minutes out of the loading ritual before a polite woman with an orange reflective vest over her uniform pointed to the sign posted nearby and informed me that "there's no parking or waiting. You'll have to move on."

"But my wife just went back in to get her other bag," I said. "She should be out any second." The woman -- I think she was airport police, but I could not tell because of the orange vest -- allowed as how she was sorry, but the trip "back around to the arrival area just takes a minute or two."

I complied. As it turned out, I had to make two passes, but on the second, Ginny was at the curb with her other bag and her sister came through the doors a minute later.

Throughout this familiar ritual my mind raced through many untidy thoughts -- terrorism "what ifs" triggered by the scene all around me. Airport arrival and departure areas present a kind of flowing chaos and this was certainly the case at BWI that morning. Passenger vans from rental car agencies and area hotels were moving past, or stopping briefly to take on passengers. Taxis, private cars, airport limos and buses inched along as pedestrians threaded their way between and around them.

A pickup truck was parked on an inner lane, close to the luggage area exit doors. A gangly young man wearing a yellow hardhat was loading metal scaffolding (construction and repair was underway in the arrival area) into the back of the truck. Each piece made a loud crashing sound that echoed off the concrete walls and the ceiling of the overhang.

People of every description stood beside their luggage or sat on benches, arms folded, looking off in the distance, trying to pick out the vehicle that was coming to pick them up. A tour group of some kind was lined up with luggage waiting to board a bus.

Besides the young woman who addressed me, I saw one other orange-vested security person about 100 feet away, talking to a policeman in a squad car, which then pulled away. Questions popped into my mind:

What if someone here is at the wheel of a car bomb? What if it is a big "shaped charge," designed to direct the blast toward that huge expanse of glass in front of the luggage area? What if someone has an automatic weapon in his trunk? He stops, as if he is going to pick up a passenger, opens the trunk, pulls out the weapon and begins spraying all those people lined up to get on that bus.

After dropping Ginny's sister off in the Washington, D.C., suburbs, I thought a lot about airport security on the long drive back to Pennsylvania. That cop was right to tell me to move along. It was one of the few things she could do to obviate or minimize a potential terrorist act. But I wondered how things really looked through her eyes as a stream of vehicles and people flowed past during her tour of duty at the arrival area.

How did she see me? Average-looking older white man, silver haired, wearing a navy blue knit shirt and khakis. What about the "middle eastern-looking" limo driver standing behind the black sedan service Lincoln up ahead of me on the inner lane beneath the overhang? What about the bearded man with a turban, probably a Sikh, who was on the plane with Ginny?

What images and thoughts did she sort out from minute-to-minute? Did she think that harmless-looking white van might be a mobile bomb? What type of vehicle might catch her interest, and what sort of personal appearance or behavior would "raise her alert level?" That construction worker had a plastic ID badge attached to his belt. Had she or anyone else checked it? Did she ever get bored by the routine of it all? Become inattentive? Watch the clock 'til her shift was over?

I came to no conclusions, only concerns -- about how difficult it is to defend against individual terrorist acts and how vulnerable our infrastructure and our daily social and business intercourse must remain. We chafe, rightly, at every restriction, and lament the changes from the freer days of travel that we remember. Our encounters with security personnel "just doing their job" often leave us bristling, affronted, impatient to be on our way.

The next morning, I read about the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority's decision to randomly stop and search passengers on MBTA subways and trains. These random searches are to commence in July, before the influx of people for the Democratic National Convention in Boston, July 26-29.

The American Civil Liberties Union hopped on the matter right away, warning that the searches may be unconstitutional. The ACLU's Massachusetts branch branded the planned searches as "pretend security," urged passengers to exercise their right to refuse identity checks, and expressed concern that authorities might select those to be searched on the basis of their appearance.

The prospect of domestic terrorism is causing more heartburn for civil libertarians, just as it is causing more barricades around public buildings, less access to previously free areas, and expensive precautions for people in the transportation business. Greyhound doesn't operate on particularly fat margins, but it is spending millions now to install protective cocoons around its bus drivers and give them better emergency communications from the driver's seat. More bus and train passengers across the country are going to be subjected to luggage searches.

I appreciate the high-mindedness of some in the ACLU. Let's all briefly genuflect to the ideal of civil liberties and then let's all fervently hope that people like that cop at BWI and those at the MBTA will have the sense, the instinct and sometimes the guts to search people on the basis of their appearance.

I want security personnel who will cast a gimlet eye on people who don't look right and people who look too right and people who seem to be trying too hard to look right. I want more suspicion and a little paranoia.

I want profiling.

I'm sorry if that nice Saudi marine biologist gets his nose a little out of joint. And it's okay if they strip search the occasional widow in a wheelchair (by a kindly police matron, of course) just to give a little phony context to what's really going on. Hey, search me! I would rather be embarrassed and uncomfortable than blown to bits. I would rather be angry with some intrusive cop and still be alive to write my letter complaining about him.

This is life and death. I'm sure the few egregious excesses of overzealous authorities will get lots of media attention and juicy lawsuits. The rest can be sorted out and cried over when this war is over.


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