September 11, 2003 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

No Perfect Solution

Terrorism continues to pose very real threats - in many forms and from many quarters. Washington can and must act to counter them. But let's not delude ourselves: No plan and no amount of resources can insulate us from all possible dangers. Pursuing a solution that seems to be perfect on paper may, in reality, leave all of us less secure.

There is no set recipe for devising an effective air security strategy. Absolutes do not apply here. But any approach taken should do the following:

• First, recognize the world outside aviation. Since Sept. 11, 2001, there has been a disproportionate focus on threats to aviation security. While these threats remain substantial, we cannot allow them to blind us to other vulnerabilities, such as those involving nuclear power plants or cargo containers.

Solutions, too, may best come from outside the aviation box. Some argue, for instance, that the best defense against shoulder-fired missiles is not installing unproven technology on aircraft, but increasing efforts to contain these weapons in the first place.

• Second, differentiate among potential sources of danger. Failure to do so has supplied most every air traveler with a favorite horror story, be it long lines of people standing barefoot waiting to be screened or the grandmother strip-searched for weapons.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is moving in the right direction, most recently with a plan to color-code passenger risk levels. More is needed.

• Third, use resources soundly. It's popular to say "spend whatever it takes," but that motto hides some real problems. Limitless resources encourage a wasteful culture - especially in an agency whose mission is unassailable. Not surprisingly, TSA - which some joke actually is an acronym for "Thousands Standing Around" - has been a magnet for waste. These wasted resources should be used for real security.

The cost and the hassles associated with the new security function as a further blow to the air travel industry itself, and ultimately decrease safety as travelers abandon the airways for highways.

To its credit, the government has lately improved on this front, even coming up with creative win-win solutions, such as using customs and immigration officers to augment the air marshal force.

Is a plan needed? Of course. But government agencies from the U.S. Postal Service to state motor vehicle departments are awash in plans, with little to show for them. We need to ensure that those plans reflect common-sense principles and judgments. Though not as appealing as a grand vision, this rational approach is essential for the still-long battle ahead.

James Gattuso is a research fellow in regulatory policy at The Heritage Foundation, a public policy research institute.

About the Author

James L. Gattuso Senior Research Fellow in Regulatory Policy
Thomas A. Roe Institute for Economic Policy Studies

Reprinted with permission of USA Today