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Airport insecurity

08/22/06 12:00AM By Mike Martin
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(HOST) Flying in the wake of the recent London terror alert has prompted commentator Mike Martin to wonder if we should think more about people - not things - to improve airport security.

(MARTIN) Just two days after the foiled terrorist plot to blow up ten planes, I flew from Paris to Montreal with my wife and kids and it wasn't very much fun.

I don't mind flying, but the airport felt pretty tense, even though I guess we were supposed to feel relieved because they caught the bad guys this time. Still, when the authorities tell you that we've narrowly missed "death on a massive scale" it's a little unsettling.

The long lines at the extra security checkpoints seemed to bring out people's true nature. Some were good-humored, some stoic, some were gracious, others cut the line. Some people yelled at their kids, and some people kept snuggling up to their cell phones like security blankets.

We met a lady in line who was going to Algeria. She was putting the best face on things and trying to keep her toddler from crying. He was getting sick of all the roped-off lines that zigzag over and over without ever getting to an amusement park ride.

There's a degree of absurdity to what gets banned after each one of these terror alerts, but it seems like women's accessories bear the brunt of it. Since the plotters' explosive was liquid this time, the passengers had to duly give up their make-up, perfume, and mineral water. After the shoe-bomber of course, it was shoes; you would see an elegant woman put her high heels on the conveyor belt, and then, somehow diminished, shuffle through the x-ray to go fetch them. Sharp objects were taboo immediately after 9/11, and lots of nail clippers and cuticle scissors paid the price.

A few years ago, I was mad when I had a new set of French bocce balls confiscated. I mean they're perfectly round - they're not sharp at all. But when I was told that they could be used as a weapon, I relented. The thought of attacking the flight crew with my bocce balls was so Monty Python that I gave in.

For a while, airline meals had plastic knives and stainless-steel forks. This seemed goofy to me too - like mismatched socks. And I never could understand why the fork wasn't dangerous - couldn't a fork really hurt too?

Of course none of this is a laughing matter, and since my sons' grandparents live in France, I really hope that relatively convenient, inexpensive air travel will continue in the years to come.

But it's important to not lose sight of the human part of all this. Recent news reports say that airport security is now being trained to decode passenger facial expressions, and there's a new appreciation for how important some minimum-wage airport jobs really are.

And this latest plot wasn't undone by new airport protocols or biometric scanners. It was simply because a citizen from the terrorists' community decided that their plans were evil and warned the authorities.

Maybe the best airport security would be to win more hearts and minds.

Mike Martin writes about cultural and education issues, and teaches French at Champlain Valley Union High School.

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