Security, Common Sense and Gen. Joe Foss

Eighty-six year old Joe Foss stood in the America West Airlines security line at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix. It was Jan. 11, and the retired Marine general and former governor of South Dakota was on his way to speak at a National Rifle Association meeting in Arlington, Va.

In his jacket pocket were three items: A dummy bullet with a hole drilled through the casing so that it could be attached to a key chain, a commemorative inscribed fingernail file, and the Medal of Honor he had received in 1943 from President Franklin D. Roosevelt after shooting down 26 enemy planes in the Pacific.

This was not your everyday pocket litter, but then, Joe is not your everyday kind of guy.

It seems the security folks had a problem with all three items. The “bullet,” security officials proclaimed, was ammunition. The nail file with its Medal of Honor inscription was an “obvious” deadly weapon. And the Medal of Honor itself: Well, they had no idea what it was, and apparently were unwilling to read the inscription on the back of the medal. They saw the general/governor as a threat, dressed as he was in a western outfit, complete with boots and 10-gallon hat, and traveling on a one-way first-class ticket.

Foss explained to the security personnel that he normally didn’t travel with these things (except the dummy bullet on his key chain), but that he would be visiting West Point to give a presentation and show his Medal of Honor to the cadets. In response, they made him remove his belt, tie, and boots, and subjected him to a thorough pat-down search after his pacemaker activated the gate metal detector.

When it was all over 45 minutes later, he had gone through the “take off your boots” routine three times, guards removed a pack of safety razor blades from his luggage, and security personnel confiscated his dummy bullet and commemorative fingernail file. Reluctantly, they allowed him to retain his Medal of Honor since they were hard-pressed to determine how he might actually use it as a weapon. Clearly, they still had no idea what the medal was all about.

General Foss was pretty good-natured about the whole thing. America West would not acknowledge that he had been their passenger, and the FAA indicated that nail files and razor blades were not allowed on planes.

My question: Whatever happened to judgment?

I recently went through airport security in California wearing western boots, twice in Burbank and twice in Oakland. I had a laptop with me, various electronic items, several pens, and an electric razor and electric toothbrush. I was dressed identically each time. Twice, the metal detector went off, and twice it remained silent. Only once was I asked to remove my boots. Only one of the two personal wand scans was proficiently accomplished. No one asked to look at my electric razor or see it work; ditto my electric toothbrush. No one asked me to demonstrate that my several pens actually wrote.

My watch could have contained a garroting wire; I could have used several of the six or so cables in my bag as garroting devices. Each of my several pens could have contained dangerous substances, and could also have been used as stabbing devices as they were.

I am not necessarily advocating that such things be prohibited from aircraft. To do so would make travel needlessly difficult. On the other hand, I really would like to see some consistency in the searches, and a smattering of discretionary judgment so that the Joe Fosses of the world are not subjected to the indignities our national hero experienced.

In an earlier article (DefenseWatch Nov. 11, 2001) I suggested that airport security was a simple matter of not letting any bad guys or bad stuff on any aircraft. I then proposed that in order to accomplish this, we: (1) Require all personnel associated with airport and airline operations to take random, unannounced flights to ensure that they do their jobs effectively; (2) Inspect all baggage including hold baggage using initial computerized screening to speed up the process, augmented by hand inspections of items rejected by the initial screening; (3) Match hold baggage to passengers using transmitting chips on baggage and boarding passes; (4) Screen all passengers against databases of known suspects, applying the latest computer technology; (5) Arm crew members with non-lethal weapons, or with weapons that will not threaten the integrity of the aircraft; (6) Assign security responsibility to airports, not the airlines or feds; (7) Have the feds pay the initial costs, but let passengers pay the final costs with a $25 per ticket surcharge (eventually reimbursing the federal government for all costs).

Instead of this sensible approach, the feds have taken over security – these are the same guys who have trouble delivering the mail and getting Amtrak trains to arrive on time. We are neglecting obvious available technologies, while letting cost determine our approach. We are confiscating harmless pen knives while missing obvious real potential weapons. We are harassing national heroes in their twilight years, while ignoring genuine threats being carried by men obviously capable of using them.

As I said, it’s all a matter of judgment.

As children we all learned the story of Chicken Little, and of how his overreaction to a falling acorn resulted in the entire village being disrupted by the “falling sky.” I fear we are dealing with more than a little “Chicken Little” here.


Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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