Yesterday the U.S. Transportation and Security Administration issued new regulations that passengers from 14 countries would receive a “full body pat-down and physical inspection of property” before they can board a plane headed to the U.S. The countries include Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria, which are considered “state sponsors of terrorism” as well as those from “countries of interest”—including Afghanistan, Algeria, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen.

Do you feel safer today?

Maybe it’s time the U.S. took a lesson from the Israeli airport security playbook. Anyone who has ever traveled in and out of that country, whose airport, passengers, and planes have long been a prized target for terrorists, knows that serious security is not the result of knee jerk reactive measures, but of careful study and planning. Last week, the Toronto Star published an article about the effectiveness of Israeli airport security which has not been breached since 2002, when a passenger mistakenly carried a handgun onto a flight.
According the Star, the Israeli system focuses on behavior, not race, age, or other physical attributes. “To us, it doesn’t matter if he’s black, white, young or old” said Rafi Sela, the president of AR Challenges, a global transportation security consultancy who has worked with the U.S. Navy Seals and airports around the world. According to Sela the Israelis focus on behavior, not appearance. Airport security officers look for nervousness or other signs of “distress” in travelers, who are required to pass through several seemingly benign levels of security when arriving at the airport. First, security officers greet the travelers at a roadside check at the entrance to the airport. Once they’ve parked passengers enter the airport terminal after passing guards outside who are trained to observe odd behavior. Once in the terminal, passengers are greeted by a trained interviewer who takes the traveler’s passport and ticket, and asks a series of questions such as, “Who has packed your luggage? Has it left your side?” After check-in the passengers then pass through the “hard” levels of security; scanners and screeners. Then they are off to the secure area of the terminal to shop, grab a snack, or relax in the lounge before they board their flight. The entire process from parking to gate takes about 25 minutes.

The difference is that the Israelis focus on behavior, not appearance or objects. “First, it’s fast — there’s almost no line” says Sela. That’s because they’re not looking for liquids, they’re not looking at your shoes. They’re not looking for everything they look for in North America. They just look at you. Even today with the heightened security in North America, they will check your items to death. But they will never look at you, at how you behave. They will never look into your eyes … and that’s how you figure out the bad guys from the good guys.”

Compare this to the new TSA regulations which apparently will require the full-body pat down of an accomplished Pakistani physician who has worked and taught at a renown medical institution in the U.S. for many years, or a 95 year old Nigerian woman in a wheel chair (including physical inspection of the wheel chair), but not a 23 year old from, say, Australia, New Zealand, or even the U.S. Does this really make sense? If nothing else, the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh, a gulf war veteran, taught us that terrorists who would harm the U.S. are not limited to any particular nationality, ethnicity, or religion.

After 9/11 the U.S. has treated all visitors—including tourists, professional workers, and green card holders—as suspects, rather than guests. In the process we have dissuaded many talented foreign nationals from coming here. I fear the new TSA regulations, which appear to focus on objective criteria rather than suspicious behavior, will do little to increase security but instead discourage the best and brightest from coming to America to contribute to our social fabric.

The foiled Christmas Day attack was certainly a wake-up call. We need a more effective system to protect our citizens and airports. But those charged with our homeland security need to focus on building a system that really works, or, as the Star describes it, “a system that that protects life and limb without annoying you to death.”