I was making my first airplane trip after the September 11 attack, and boy was I afraid. I was headed right up through Terrorist Alley—from Montgomery, Alabama, through Memphis, Tennessee, to St. Louis, Missouri, and back again. Old Bin Laden himself could not have designed such a daredevil adventure.
The first thing you notice about the new and "improved" airport safety system is the presence of barricades, police officers, and young soldiers who are dressed in camouflage uniforms and carrying M-16 machine guns.
These soldiers are the same kids that we don't allow to buy beer and who listen to music with lyrics like, "I'm a loser and I know I'm going to die." One of the kids was clearly enjoying his newfound power over the patrons of the airport, but the other was uncomfortable wearing his weekend warrior outfit in public and seemed highly relieved when I said hello.
I was there two hours early, as directed, but there were no lines. Security was less than optimal. The girl at the ticket counter forgot to ask to see my identification card and had trouble operating the tape dispenser. The security girls also had trouble with procedures, but it was very early on Sunday morning, and the team did manage to pull together for a thorough review, scan, and body-frisking the second time I went through the checkpoint.
As a matter of fact, I was singled out for the double electronic scan and body-frisking at every airport. Each time, a little lady (usually less than five feet tall) would demand that I "spread 'em" while she used her electronic frisking devise and hands all over my body, even though I had successfully made it past two electronic scans. I don't know what they were looking for. I don't look like an Arab; I've never been to the Middle East; and I've never even seen a copy of the Koran. However, I am six feet four inches tall, just like Osama and OJ Simpson, so maybe it was my height.
Things soon got worse, because the U.S. attacked Afghanistan. Security measures were increased (not improved), lines got longer, and passengers were now told to show up three hours early. Security checkpoints now have a separate person to check your ticket, scan your identification papers, and stand there and forcefully demand, "take everything out of your pockets" over and over again. All of the security girls seem to really enjoy the newfound importance and power of their jobs.
As I sat in airport after airport, hour after hour, I thought to myself: this is just like the USSR, without the Russian accent. There was a constant stream of recorded security warnings over the public address system that would have been quite unnerving to the general public if someone with a stern foreign accent had given them.
And then there is the requirement to show your "papers" at every "checkpoint," including the ticket counter, the security checkpoint, and the gateway to your plane. I felt like I was in a Kevin Costner movie about the Soviet Union.
I can also tell you that all this increased security did not improve security; it made me feel less secure. In fact, I talked to many people during my trip about the increased airport security, and of those who mattered (private-sector workers with IQs above 100), everyone felt less secure because of the increased security!
Several people mentioned that while the security girls were examining pens and confiscating cigarette lighters, they forgot to check whether some of the cell phones, cameras, and laptops were actually operational by turning them on. Other passengers expressed concern about losing sight of their Rolexes, wallets, and Palm Pilots while being searched, and remarked that these items easily could have been stolen by someone in the moving crowd.
I returned home only to face the specter of thoroughly federalized airport security. Does that mean we are going to fire all the current security force, or are we just going to pay them more at taxpayers' expense? Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-Texas) demands that security be "exactly the same at every airport in the United States." The senator and her colleagues apparently don't realize it, but that is exactly what terrorists want.
Terrorists want airport security to be predictable so that they'll know what they face in the airport and on the plane. Any attempt to regulate or regiment airport and airplane security, even if it involves such things as requiring pilots to carry guns, falls directly into the hands of terrorists and would backfire. Federalized security is knowable and predictable. You can read about it in the library or on the Internet, and then make plans to avoid it, or even take advantage of it.
Every federal bureaucracy and $2-plus trillion in taxes each year failed us on September 11: The world's only "superpower" couldn't even defend its own command center. Why in the world would anyone think that another layer of bureaucracy would in any way help the situation?
Only with private airports and completely unregulated security can terrorists be presented with an efficient, unknown, and ever-changing security challenge. Every airport would be different. Every airline would be different. Security measures could be changed regularly (and irregularly, for that matter).
Terrorists could not make plans, because they would not know what they faced. Passengers would not be harassed by security girls; they would be courted with efficient, noninvasive, and courteous security. They might also be discriminated against or "profiled," but everyone would be much safer.
Of course, we must also realize that even if we did completely privatize and deregulate air travel, terrorist could still succeed, either in the air or through other means. The only method of truly preventing terrorism is to take away their motive.
In this case, the terrorists have clearly stated that they want to bring about an end to American intervention in the Middle East and reinstitute trade with Iraq. Some people say that this won't make a difference, that they will still try to destroy us, but since we should do these things anyway, it is worth a shot.
Mark Thornton, a senior fellow of the Mises Institute, teaches economics at Columbus State University. Send him MAIL. See his Mises.org Article Archive or his scholarly pieces in the QJAE, the RAE, and the JLS. A version of this article originally appeared on Lewrockwell.com.