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.

This is why, for instance, we would never want federal air marshals on every flight, since a terrorist's first task would then be to smoke out the marshals they knew were there and kill them first. What makes the marshal program so effective is that our enemies can never be sure whether there are marshals aboard or not.

From Sick Joke to Predictable to Something Else

In exactly the same vein, TSA has recognized the fact that its screening process -- though an infinite improvement over the sick joke of a system that all but ushered Muhammad Atta and company aboard on 9/11 -- has become too predictable.

Curing that means giving the screening officers discretion for the first time to use their judgment and instinct about who to select for random searches, instead of collaring a 90-year-old grandmother with "SSSS" on her ticket because she mistakenly purchased a one-way flight -- the previous dominant (and idiotic) method of selecting people for more scrutiny. The 9/11 hijackers, by the way, were flying on round-trip tickets. Over time, with intense training and support, TSA officers will become as adept at reading their own sixth sense as many customs officers, bringing more common sense into the job in the process.

But what about the scissors? Is it safe to liberalize that rule?

In a word, yes. TSA's loosening of the prohibited-items rules is a healthy recognition of reality: The whole point of screening was never to assume that we could make airborne cabins 100 percent safe from cutting instruments (for instance a professional terrorist would more than likely bring aboard a carbon-fiber blade invisible to the screening process).

Instead it was designed to minimize the number of sharp things that slip through and provide a substantial promise to any terrorist that the chances of getting aboard with something as lethal as a box knife was far too minimal to justify trying. After all, there are many different items already aboard that could be clandestinely honed into a lethal cutting edge, including a credit card with a razor-sharpened edge.

But it has been the highly effective changes such as installing reinforced cockpit doors and adopting entirely different crew security procedures that have now raised the most substantial barriers against a terrorist ever seizing an aircraft again.

First Step in Installing Better Barriers Against Terror

The bottom line: In the din following TSA's announcement, what got lost was the fact that contrary to the bureaucratically rigid attitudes from which TSA was molded, we now know that hiring intelligent people and then prohibiting them from using intellect and discretion is both frustrating and destructive to the mission.

Changing their rank from "screeners" to "officers" and investing them with enough public trust to make intelligent decisions based on their training -- and especially allowing them to focus more broadly on keeping truly dangerous items such as explosives off our aircrafts -- makes far more sense.

This is a first step, but it's a significant one, and for those who would criticize TSA's very small change in the prohibited-items list, a quick education on what the agency was formed to do in the first place would be helpful.