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Do We Care More for Planes Than Congressmen?


As Matt Yglesias notes, European countries are a lot more lax on airport and museum security, and Copenhagen Airport doesn't appear to be suffering from a raft of shoe bombers. This despite the fact that the large and relatively disaffected Muslim populations in many European countries present a much better breeding ground for Islamic radicalism than exists in the United States.

But to get an apples-to-apples sense of the overcompensation in America's airport security system, it's worth wandering around Washington, D.C. for a day. After all, if you're a terrorist with a small bomb strapped to your body and a desire to detonate in a secured location (as opposed to a supermarket or the mall), Congress would present a pretty attractive target. But neither the Capitol, nor any of the attached Senate and House office complexes, force you to remove shoes, belts, or even jackets. More to the point, the White House is no stricter: you walk through a metal detector, put your briefcase through a scanner, and continue on about your day. The lines move swiftly, and there have been no attacks.

That's not to say these buildings are insecure, or a ripe target for terrorists. They're just properly secure, while the airports have a lot of excess security that was meant less to keep people safe than to reassure them that they're being kept safe. That might have made sense at one point, but now it just makes a lot of people avoid air travel because it's become such an ungodly hassle. Indeed, if America had a decent train infrastructure, I imagine the substitution effect would be quite large. It certainly is on the DC-New York route, where just about everyone I know prefers hopping on the train to spending an hour waiting in line to get strip-searched before a flight.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Jeff Roberson.

By Ezra Klein  |  October 14, 2009; 8:16 AM ET
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KĂžbenhavn's airport is ridiculously nice!

For sure one of the nicest in the world.

They have hard-wooden floors every where and its fronts as an upscale Mall - which makes waiting for a flight that much more relaxing.

Posted by: mcgrupp10799 | October 14, 2009 10:26 AM | Report abuse

"meant less to keep people safe than to reassure them that they're being kept safe. "

Or, rather, to reassure them that they need to be constantly afraid.

Posted by: adamiani | October 14, 2009 10:31 AM | Report abuse

There are much more sophisticated security measures in the whitehouse and capitol that obviate the need for scanning shoes.

Posted by: Drew_Miller_Hates_IDs_That_Dont_Allow_Spaces | October 14, 2009 10:45 AM | Report abuse

Would losing some Senators really be that bad?

Posted by: par4 | October 14, 2009 10:54 AM | Report abuse

One important difference worth remembering is that you can't hijack the Capitol building and fly it into a skyscraper.

Posted by: jackfutey | October 14, 2009 10:55 AM | Report abuse

I agree with you, but it's worth pointing out that you can crash a plane with a knife or a gun but you can't blow up a building with the same.

Posted by: WHSTCL | October 14, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

"just about everyone [you] know prefers hopping on the train" [on the DC-NY corridor]

Really? I know an awful lot of DC 20-somethings who greatly prefer the inter-city buses, considering how expensive Amtrak is. Maybe journalism pays better than we all thought?

Posted by: rusty_spatula | October 14, 2009 11:19 AM | Report abuse

We all take buses (I'm a DC2NY man). But no one prefers them.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | October 14, 2009 11:35 AM | Report abuse

And then there's:
which even this:
won't pick up.

Terrorism which repeats its modus operandi is more terrifying than terrorism which tries something different. (I expect you can figure out the logic of that for yourself.) So, the US is interested in the deterrent value of all the safeguards. What with carbon footprints and all, trains and buses are better anyway.

Posted by: TomJx | October 14, 2009 11:39 AM | Report abuse

I meant repeats 'successfully' of course. Trying and failing is of course a win (and reassuring and good publicity) for the anti-terrorists.

Posted by: TomJx | October 14, 2009 11:41 AM | Report abuse

with the rules about cockpit door security that should have been adopted before 9-11 and have been adopted since, you can not crash a plane with a knife or gun anymore. Well unless the gun is exceptionally large

Posted by: williamcross1 | October 14, 2009 12:56 PM | Report abuse

"with the rules about cockpit door security that should have been adopted before 9-11 and have been adopted since, you can not crash a plane with a knife or gun anymore."

Also, you can never again expect the other passengers to remain docile.

Posted by: Janine1 | October 14, 2009 1:30 PM | Report abuse

The security theatre gets about five times as bad if you have to navigate it with a toddler.

Yes, the toddler's shoes have to come off, just like yours do. No, you can't leave the toddler in the stroller, because the stroller itself has to go through the scanner. So you and your spouse are juggling your own carry-ons, shoes, belts, laptops/Kindles, plus the toddler himself, his stuff, and his stroller. From the point where you're near enough to the scanners to start undressing and taking the kid out of his stroller, to the point on the other side where you're finished pulling your stuff back together, is a hellacious fifteen minutes.

No way I'd do that rather than drive or take the train if I could get there in under 10 hours on the ground. But our plane travel tends to be on routes that would require a genuine SUPERTRAIN to get it down to that timeframe. (Baltimore-to-Tampa is the shortest of our frequently-flown routes.)

I've got an idea: let's have SUPERTRAINS running up and down the East Coast. AND let's get rid of the worst and stupidest of the security theatre at our airports.

Posted by: rt42 | October 14, 2009 1:31 PM | Report abuse

I am in the Rayburn House office building every Tuesday (as a guest) and I have to take off my bag and jacket and put them through an x-ray and walk through a metal detector. My belt of choice sets off the detector, as does my watch (not my cuff links) so I put my belt and watch in a bin and send them through the x-ray machine as well. Every other guest that enters the building with me has to do the same. You are correct that I don't have to take off my shoes. What I've experienced in the Rayburn building doesn't seem to jive with your description above.

Posted by: mawst95 | October 14, 2009 3:54 PM | Report abuse

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