Nights when I'd ride the subway from Manhattan to Brooklyn, sometimes another passenger wearing the distinctive beret of the Guardian Angels would step into the car. I'd immediately feel safe. Members of that group have a real Presence: Do not even contemplate messing with me. So I've been perplexed by recent dust storms over the U.S. Air Marshals' visibility when they fly with the rest of us. Maybe it's time to rethink air travel safety.
The marshals' dress code has been ridiculed—by them—as being far too elegant compared to contemporary travel attire. Ordinary flyers tend to dress for a day at the beach or perhaps a greased-pig catching contest. The marshals wear pressed trousers, shiny shoes, and sport jackets that they keep on. They might very well have shoulder holsters under those threads. They also show some special IDs that speed them through security ahead of everyone else.
As I was writing this last night—no fooling!—the ABC evening news carried a story saying that the marshals have prevailed in their struggle for dress-down transport. Now they can be as stealthy as any other passenger wearing shorts, thong sandals, and a jacket.
What Do They Do?
I thought the air marshals' job was to maintain peace aloft. If one of them had been on the flight carrying that deranged Vermonter who got a plane diverted from DC to Boston she might not have been such a disruption. As far as I'm concerned, put a marshal, whether stealthy or conspicuous, on every flight that looks interesting for whatever reason. As it is, seats on only 5% of domestic flights are occupied by those quellers of commotion at 35,000 feet. But that flight originated overseas.
Technology and Training
It is general knowledge that Israel's airports and airline have gone unmolested for 30 years. Why is this? One reason is that Israeli airport security won't let you even get into the terminal if you're acting or looking a bit off. Strangers engage travelers in casual conversations about mundane matters, but these chats are really far from chance encounters. The initiators are highly trained profilers who can pick up on minute indications of evasiveness or elevated levels of anxiety. Moreover, once inside the terminal, you and your luggage, whether carryon or checkthrough, are joined all the way through security. Those people mean business.
In the States, technology continues to run the show. Aside from an occasional speed bump, it grows more clever daily. If the U.S. Air Marshals want to work under cover, I guess they have their reasons. Their work load would be considerably lightened if, to cite that air official, we looked for the bad people rather than the bad things. To be sure, detecting bad things will continue to be a priority at our ports of entry. As well it should. The technology that lets us do that should be fostered. Cocaine and untraceable firearms don't hit the streets via manhole covers.
Where Should We Go?
Clearly, a combination of sensor technology and trained human profilers is the immediate solution to the air scare. Beats confiscating babies' teething rings and frisking the wheelchair-bound elderly. The long-term solution would be to make more friends and fewer foes.