Not So Fast, Charlie!

There is an old saying that captures the difficulty of human communication among humans: "I know you think you understood what you thought I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard wasn't what I meant."

In allegiance to that reality, many veteran air travelers hearing of the Transportation Security Administration's announcement Dec. 2 about an impending rule change substituted wishful thinking for fact. Yes, there had been discussion of a small liberalization of the rules, but to judge from the artificial snorting in some warrens on Capitol Hill, you would have thought TSA had just announced that broadswords and machetes were now welcome in airline cabins.

No, there will still be stringent rules, and machetes will still be outlawed.

Making a Less Predictable System

The TSA announcement wasn't just about liberalizing some of the carry-on rules and taking some items off the previously prohibited list. It was also about making the system less predictable, and that will be accomplished by trusting the screeners -- now appropriately called TSOs, or transportation security officers -- to actually use their intellect and discretion in deciding what (and who) needs a closer look.

In other words, much of the announcement was profoundly important, but it got lost when the spotlight lit up a renewed acceptance of small scissors and other items sometimes found in the bottom of a purse -- items the TSA says have amounted to fully 25 percent of the "things" they've had to confiscate from honest citizens devoid of lethal intent.

For many males in the audience, the announcement of impending change was hopefully interpreted as perhaps including those tiny pen knives we're required by the guy code to carry. Many of us have surrendered at least a few such little folding knives to TSA in past years after forgetting to leave them at home before a trip.

And for some of us (names have been omitted here to protect the guilty, but I'll never do it again), losing six or eight of them has sometimes been required in order to learn the lesson. Of course pen knives and things with sharp blades of any sort have been completely prohibited since 9/11, and they still will be.

Change of Attitude -- But Beware

What will change on Dec. 22 is TSA's attitude toward a very limited selection of household items such as scissors of 4 inches or less, or certain tools under 7 inches, like screwdrivers. Leatherman tools or anything with a blade will still be prohibited, and frankly, so will anything else that could easily be used as lethal weapon. That's what a lot of us missed in the reportage of the changes and the resulting grousing from a few lawmakers.

But there's an important caution here: The list of newly legalized items you'll now be able to bring aboard is not necessarily intuitive, so until you go to www.tsa.gov and search out the official list of approved items, do not assume that something once prohibited is now OK.

There was, of course, a lot more to the story and the concept behind the changes, much of it about facing reality. First, 9/11-class terrorists need predictability and certainty of success in a big-attack operation, and thus they're thwarted by uncertainty and any substantial risk their plans might not succeed.

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