Last Sunday when my daughter flew from Chicago to San Francisco, she planned to finish knitting a Christmas stocking she started a year ago for her niece. But her plans became completely unraveled when the security agent confiscated her knitting needles. It was all because of that young Nigerian who attempted to blow up the Northwest plane on Christmas Day.
"The agent took my needles and some tiny kid scissors a 4-year-old was carrying in a project kit next to me," said my daughter, Kaley. "I understand the concern. But it seems like every time there's an incident, our government says don't panic. And that's exactly what they do."
Kaley is right. This terrorist threat was foiled. But that didn't stop our government from issuing a bunch of crazy rules that would do little to stop another terrorist attempt. According to reports, young children and old women were given pat downs. On some flights, passengers had to keep their hands in sight at all times. On other flights, passengers were not allowed to have any bags on their laps. And apparently blankets were also considered a threat and eliminated from some flights. In-flight entertainment was curtailed for some aircraft and for other flights, passengers were forced to remain seated during the last hour of their trip.
In fact, the only thing consistent about the response to the attack was inconsistency. This, according to the TSA, is our strongest weapon against terrorism. By having no set plan, the idea is the would-be terrorist will be just as confused as the average traveler and have no idea how to proceed.
If the government is right, we should feel quite safe. Our airport security system is riddled with inconsistencies.
Airports have security locks on their doors and alarms that sound when they're opened by a nonauthorized person. Yet, many times you'll hear the alarm sound and see no urgent response by anyone.
And while all authorized personnel must have photo badges displayed, any 16-year-old kid can create one on his inkjet printer.
Some security agents go by the book while others pay little attention to what passes through the check points. One traveler told me he always carries a bottle of water in his pocket and has never been pulled aside.
Just last month, I was seated next to a security agent along a concourse at the Salt Lake City International Airport. A flight attendant approached him and said there was a package leaning against the wall with no one near it. The agent said he would take care of it. He took care of it by doing a crossword puzzle and drinking a second cup of coffee.
International airports have different requirement from ours. In French airports, you don't have to remove your computer from its case. In some airports, it's OK to wear your blazer and shoes.
And, as observed in this terrorist attempt, when our government is forewarned about a possible terrorist, we don't always act on the information.
After enforcing a random set of inconsistent rules for a couple of days after the latest incident, the TSA has backed off and is again allowing people to move about the cabin. But they still haven't found an answer for how to keep explosives off an aircraft.
A few years ago, when the British terrorist Richard Reed tried to set his shoe on fire, the government responded by requiring all passengers remove their shoes before flying. And so far no one has tried to set their shoe on fire since. So it must have worked.
This terrorist boarded with his underwear filled with explosive powder. Hmm. I wonder what we'll all soon need to remove before we fly in 2010.
• Gail Todd, a freelance writer, worked as a flight attendant for more than 30 years. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.