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Missing the bigger picture in security

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The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) eased the ban on liquids and gels on airplanes on September 26. Rejoice! Where’s my shampoo?

But there’s always a catch: You’re limited to travel-size bottles, and all of your toiletries have to fit in one eight-inch Ziploc bag. Leave those comfy shoe inserts at home; you still can’t take them with you.

At least the thirsty masses can once again bring drinks on planes, provided that they buy them from restaurants or shops between the security checkpoint and the gate — and who doesn’t love those $3 bottles of water? I shouldn’t mention that most employees at those shops are exempt from security screenings because it probably won’t make you feel safer.

Regardless, the idea of a multipart liquid explosive that is easy to mix together on an airplane is a bit of a fantasy in itself, the stuff of Die Hard or 24. Unless terrorists can bootleg an entire chemistry lab (or some gasoline) onto an airplane, you don’t have to worry too much. For terrorists, the easing of the liquid ban means at best they could douse themselves in liquid soap and give an air marshal the slip.

So we can add one more accomplishment to the TSA’s small list of triumphs: keeping airport convenience stores and tiny plastic bottle manufacturers in business since 2006. I feel safer already. This concession for toiletries might as well have been delivered with a wink and a nudge. “Oh yes, you’re screwed, but at least you have clean hair and teeth.”

I say that because there are some real threats to airlines that are more pressing than Fixodent and Dr. Scholl’s: missiles and batteries.

There are thousands of portable, heat-seeking missiles on the black market, and it’s only a matter of time before someone takes a shot at an American commercial airliner. There has been talk of outfitting planes with technology that can fool these missiles, but the cost is prohibitive, until you consider the total potential cost of a plane being shot out of the sky over New Jersey.

And don’t forget that if you have a Dell, Apple, Toshiba, Lenovo, Fujitsu, or IBM laptop, your battery might burn up and explode. The major battery recalls are making headlines, but that doesn’t mean people will listen or act. Where are the TSA warnings on that one?

Screening baggage won’t protect us forever. Build a better detector and terrorists will find a better way to hide a weapon. When the TSA catches word of any ridiculous plot, watch out. Laptops, iPods, shoes, water, clothes, fingernails, hair follicles, tooth fillings — how much are we willing to give up to fly to Los Angeles in four hours?

We are all being suckered. We’re waiting in long lines and submitting ourselves to cavity searches for the illusion of safety. We take off our shoes and tolerate broadcast requests for diligence and throw out our shampoo because we’ve been told it will keep us safe.

While airport security is not wholly ineffective, there are better ways. More terrorists (like the alleged liquid bombers) will be stopped through intelligence and investigation efforts than by screening luggage for shampoo.

It’s one thing to protect us from a particular plot or tactic (e.g., box cutters, liquids, shoe bombs), but it’s better to identify terrorists, cut their funding, and stop them regardless of their tactics and targets. People feel reassured by guards and imposing security machines, but with every dollar spent on regulations, equipment, and security staff, we are diverting resources that could be better spent tracking down and stopping terrorists before they get to the airport. Or shopping mall. Or reservoir. Or football game. You get the idea.

Even more terrorists will be deterred if we don’t make a big deal out of terrorism. Terrorists don’t merely want to blow up airplanes; they want to disrupt our daily lives. Every reactionary TSA regulation, every media frenzy, every pontificating political speech, every time we are manipulated by fear, we are — to use the cliché — letting the terrorists win.

Be honest: Does anyone look forward to flying these days? When was the last time you felt the magic of air travel, that a metal tube and some jet engines could allow man to pierce the clouds and look down from the heavens? Can we ever recapture that feeling, or are we doomed to have any pleasure of flight beaten out of us by long screening lines and nonsense baggage rules?

We’re stuck on the idea that the wonder of airline travel has been replaced by the harsh truth of an uncertain and dangerous world. When we trade magic for fact, there are no tradebacks. We knew it couldn’t last. We’ll have to change our ways of life forever. We lose. Oh, well, here’s our toothpaste and our dignity.

We deserve better. The country that abolished slavery and built the atomic bomb and defeated communism to preserve the principles of liberty can do better than give us a sandwich bag of three-ounce bottles. Stand up and demand it.