I recently blogged about some of the failures of the Transportation Security Administration, the federal bureaucracy charged with ensuring airport security in the United States. It was therefore interesting for me to observe Israeli airport security in action during my recent trip to Israel. Israeli airport security is widely considered the best in the world. There hasn't been a successful hijacking of an airliner originating in Israel since 1969, and you can be quite sure that it's not because the terrorists haven't been trying hard enough.
I noticed two obvious differences between the US and Israeli systems. First, the Israelis forego the stupid TSA ritual of making all passengers remove their shoes. Most of the time, this is just an annoying indignity. In this case, avoiding it was a godsend, since I had a twisted ankle (I later learned that it was fractured) that turned taking my shoes on and off into a mild form of torture. Perhaps taking off shoes really does provide some important security benefit that I'm unaware of. But the fact that the Israelis don't consider it necessary suggests to me that any such benefits of this practice are questionable, at best.
The second big noticeable difference between the two approaches is that the Israelis rely far more on profiling than the TSA does. Even though I doubt that the Israeli security officials singled me out for any special scrutiny, one of them nonetheless asked me 8-10 detailed questions about my background, my reasons for visiting Israel, where I had gone, and so on. The idea is, apparently, to look for inconsistencies and other red flags that might suggest the need for closer scrutiny. Every single passenger at Ben Gurion Airport undergoes similar screening.
What can we learn from the Israeli approach? Obviously, the TSA should be compelled to forego its idiotic shoe procedures. Whether we can adopt the profiling aspect of the Israeli system is much harder to say. Israel has the advantage of having only one major airport. Requiring such individualized screening at the hundreds of major airports in the US would be much more expensive and might significantly slow down air traffic. Moreover, some of the questions the Israeli security people ask would be illegal or politically unfeasible in the US. For example, the official who questioned me asked me several questions about my level of religious observance ("what religious holidays do you celebrate?", "do you celebrate them in a synagogue?", etc.). When I explained that I wasn't religious, the Israeli official said that he wasn't either. Although this didn't happen in my case, the Israelis also engage in extensive ethnic screening, imposing especially strict scrutiny on Arabs and Muslims, including even those who are Israeli citizens; they also scrutinize even non-Arab gentiles more carefully than Jews. Such practices might not be legal in the US, and would certainly come under severe political attack if implemented. In addition, they might alienate some of the minority groups whose support we most need in the War on Terror, sch as American Muslims.
For these reasons, I'm not sure that we can fully adopt the Israeli approach to airport security in the US. Nonetheless, we should at least consider moving in the direction of more individualized screening and (nonracial) profiling, and fewer mindless rituals (such as taking off your shoes) that waste time and money without appreciably increasing security.
Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby has a more detailed description of the Israeli approach here.