Keeping a Clear Head on Security

The year since the terrorist acts has seen some necessary changes -- and lots of stupid ones. It's time for some calm, common sense

By Stan Crock

A few weeks ago, as I signed in to a building where I was attending a luncheon, I had to smile and sigh at the purposelessness of the exercise. As I got into the elevator, the woman who had signed in just before me and had noticed my reaction said, "It is silly. My husband always signs in as Abu Nidal." What security guard in downtown Washington is likely to know the difference between her anonymous hubby and the notorious terrorist?

As the anniversary of the September 11 attacks passes, I'd like to offer a personal look at some of the security measures taken since then. Some are silly, some not. A year after the attacks, I would hope that common sense, rather than emotion, would prevail, but I'm not optimistic.

Office-Building Security. Let's be real -- having visitors sign in is ridiculous. It benefits pen and paper manufacturers and no one else. Names or identities aren't verified, so what possible security benefit is there?

My own office building handed out photo IDs, which in theory provides more protection than a mere sign-in. At first, tenants had to press the ID against a sensor for verification. But the system isn't always enforced, and as a defense against terrorism, it has big holes.

There's a larger question, however. If you don't work in a potential target such as the Empire State Building or Sears Tower, is any of this building security really needed as a defense against terrorists? If employers and building owners want to beef up security to thwart theft or more closely monitor traffic in and out of the building, that's perfectly understandable. Just identify the problem -- which has little to do with terrorism.

Airport Security. This is my favorite. Until recently, passengers entering secured departure or arrival gate areas had to drink any opened bottle to prove it wasn't a flammable substance for a bomb. At the same time, a separate rule prevented you from using the bathroom on many short flights. So the security folks put paying customers in a position where they might need a bathroom and then told them they couldn't use it. Somebody finally caught on. Dumb.

Random checks are another misbegotten idea. Exactly how many 85-year-old women using walkers are likely to be terrorists? Why are airport-security personnel searching them? A behavior profile should trigger a search -- and I'm not suggesting frisking every person who looks like a Muslim. Rather, airport-security folks should monitor behavior -- and take action against people acting suspiciously. Random checks are as inefficient and ineffective as anything I can imagine.

Public and Private Security: O.K., I realize this might sound self-serving. But that doesn't mean it's untrue. My temple, on whose board I serve, did a shrewd job when it considered new security measures. Right after the attacks, we hired a security consultant. It took some time for him to complete his report, then a special security committee from our synagogue reviewed it and made recommendations to the board. During that six-month period, no synagogues in the U.S. had been attacked, plenty of incidents occurred in Europe.

Several other board members and I independently started to wonder whether it would be possible to overreact to September 11. That would have sounded churlish right after the events, but six months later, less so. We looked at the recommendations not through the prism of 9/11 but based on whether they made sense on their own terms.

Setting up an internal-communications system for emergencies was one idea, for example. With a nursery school, a religious school, all-day meetings on many occasions, and services, such a system would be needed in the event of a fire or medical emergency. And it would have been needed a decade earlier. We went ahead with that, not because of any terrorist threat but because September 11 made us more aware of the issue.

We also thought about providing more security muscle. But our executive director was aware of some studies of vandalism at synagogues that showed vandals drive on when they see a uniform and look for a place without a guard. The quality of the security didn't matter as much as the uniform itself.

That argued against trying to get better-trained guards. As a practical matter, if the Israelis can't stop a determined terrorist, how could even a top-notch rent-a-cop? But we did increase the number of hours when we have guards on premises because the staff felt the building would be more secure with someone around when staffers were busy in their offices.

Perhaps the most effective idea was a simple and cheap one: locking all the doors during the day so that anyone could get out but no one could get in without ringing a doorbell. Restricting access in this way was something that should have been done for the safety of the nursery-school children even before September 11. We did a few other minor things, too, like adding more lighting to the parking lot, which had been a source of complaints for some time.

The Bottom Line: All the steps we took could enhance security. They were taken some time after the initial trauma of the attacks, when rationality and common sense could prevail. That's a novel approach the Homeland Security Dept., Transportation Security Agency, and office-building owners might consider.

Crock covers national security and foreign affairs for BusinessWeek from Washington. Follow his views in Affairs of State twice a month, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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