My September issue “Between Us Pros” column uses my family’s recent trip to Washington, D.C., as a launching pad to discuss security measures in our nation’s Capital and America’s infrastructure in general. Another experience I had during that visit begs other important questions about security practices. Here’s what happened.
I visited the fabulous National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution on consecutive days, the first with just my 8-year-old son and the second with both he and my wife. Both times I queued up in the security checkpoint line to enter, where security personnel screen visitors and all bags must be put through a metal detection portal similar to the procedures in place at airports. Both times I had passed the same backpack with the same items in it through the detector. However, the results were not the same.
On the first visit, I breezed through the clearance area and went about enjoying the awesome exhibits with my boy. On the second visit, my wife and son similarly cruised in without incident; however, for me this time it was a different story. The metal detector picked up a souvenir pocket knife I had been carrying throughout my D.C. trip in my backpack, and thus security pulled me aside.
This 3-inch, seemingly innocuous knife is the type commonly sold in tourist gift shops with a wood-grain veneer and the attraction printed on it, in this case North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain. No explanation was offered why it went undetected the day before but I was informed it was a federal building and as such no knife of any kind was permitted. Meanwhile, since it was very crowded, I could not communicate what was holding me up to my wife, who was already well inside the museum with a throng of people and much commotion between us. The best the security officer could advise me was to hide the knife outside somewhere with the hopes of retrieving it later.
So like a squirrel seeking to hide a prized nut in plain sight among hundreds of other squirrels, I jammed it into some bushes outside the main entrance. Then, I had to get back in line and wait all over again with my family still wondering what the heck had happened to me. Exasperated, I rejoined them, explained and then explored the facility. Fortunately, upon leaving, after some effort trying to find it, I was able to return the knife to my backpack.
I believe this encounter underscores two fundamental issues concerning security: policies and consistency. Clearly, the security officer was adhering to a flawed policy. Not all knives or potential weapons are equal. There is a difference between a small souvenir pocket knife and a dagger. Reason and common sense should always trump rote policy adherence. Furthermore, I am betting there are many other items one could take through without violating security that would pose a greater threat of bodily harm than my souvenir pocket knife.
Secondly, if a safeguard procedure is to be effective or achieve legitimacy it must be consistent. What good is it if weapons are only detected some of the time? Little good at all. And here’s an idea, if common items like picket knives, nail clippers, etc. are going to be confiscated or turned away, how about setting up a kiosk to check in those items or having lockers available to store them in? Not only would this be a great convenience to better serve the public/customers but it could also create a new revenue stream. But no, it must be better to have people placing potentially dangerous items in and around the entrance ways where criminals or children might find them. Ridiculous.
Well into the second post-9/11 decade, problems of this type revolving around personnel, training, policies, processes and logistics continue to be widely evident most anyplace requiring the throughput of large volumes of people, from airports to sporting events. In addition, in many cases, we are missing golden opportunities to realize the power of today’s tremendous technologies. Between the illogical and inconsistent practices being carried out at D.C. attractions, and the lagging security in the commuter rail system detailed in my September column, I am deeply concerned about true progress being made for a safer and saner world. I know we can do better. We must do better.