Originally created 07/31/05

Is watching old women in wheelchairs really making air travel safer?



Question: What do elderly, wheelchair-bound Caucasian women have in common with the terrorists who crashed airliners into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, and the terrorists who bombed London earlier this summer?

Answer: Nothing.

And yet, at security checkpoints at airports and train stations around the country, we treat them as equals. Why? It's nonsense and worse, and could end up causing the deaths of hundreds or perhaps thousands of innocent Americans in another terrorist attack.

But let me back up and explain.

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to do a little traveling - specifically flying - which I hadn't done much of since 9-11. If you haven't flown recently, then here are a few tips to make your experience more pleasant: Show up insanely early, have your picture ID handy at all times, except in the restroom, leave your nail clippers, cigarette lighters and bomb jokes at home and, most importantly, wear socks without holes in them, since you'll be asked to take off your shoes.

All of this is a small price to pay for the increased security and the peace of mind that goes along with it.

However, if for some reason you do set off the metal detector repeatedly, or you have a carry-on bag that needs extra scrutiny, be prepared to go through secondary security screening.

This happened while I was passing through security to enter Gate 5 at the Augusta airport. Not to me, but to an elderly woman confined to a wheelchair. As she was being wheeled to the gate entrance, she presented an ID that apparently was an expired driver's license. The airport employee asked if she had a valid driver's license. No, she said. Well, she was told, she'd have to go through the additional security measures. She understood.

They wheeled her around to an area adjacent to the metal detector to screen her further. It would be necessary to use the metal detector wand, they informed her. She understood.

The screener passed the wand over her, and in order to wand her under the arms, pulled up on her elbows - lifting her out of her chair a bit.

She let out an audible gasp. Her arms would not go up. Whatever her infirmity was, it obviously caused limited range of motion in her arms, and probably stiffness and pain as well. The screener asked, "Can you lift your arms, ma'am?" Well, no, of course not, I thought.

The wheelchair-bound woman endured the screening with an air of resignation. She understood.

I didn't.

I can appreciate policies and procedures and the necessity of equal treatment, but at some point common sense needs to intervene. So far in the history of this country, I know of no instance in which an elderly, wheelchair-bound woman committed an act of terrorism. We do have a pretty good description, however, of the types of people who have committed recent acts of terrorism. And by recent, I mean in the past 30 or 40 years. With few exceptions, every one was a young, Middle-Eastern male with a Middle-Eastern sounding name.

If a group of Middle-Eastern men robbed a bank and were identified as such by eyewitnesses, would it make sense to detain elderly white women in wheelchairs? Or African-American teenage girls? Or Asian men? Of course not. But this is essentially what we're doing.

Screening should be required for everyone, but Middle-Eastern men should be given extra scrutiny. We're trying to avoid the appearance of profiling while the terrorists scoff at such niceties. They use them against us.

Michael Winner, director of the Charles Bronson film Death Wish, recently had harsh words for the way British authorities have handled the terrorism issue there: "The so-called politically correct liberals have on their hands the blood of many of our citizens already. Tragically, the number will vastly increase before anything sensible is done about it."

The same could be said for us over here.

But at least you can rest easy if you end up sitting next to a little old white lady in a wheelchair on your next flight.

(Editor's note: The writer is editorial cartoonist for The Augusta Chronicle.)