Hold it right there

August 23, 2004

WHO AMONG US did not feel a little shiver of mean delight last week at the news that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy had not once but five times been told he could not board a commercial plane? The image of a genuine Washington pooh-bah falling afoul of the government's inane security system was one to savor.

But now that we've had the advantage of a period of sober reflection, we're inclined to ponder: Is this idiotic, or what?

The government keeps lists of suspected terrorists who aren't allowed to fly, and leaves it up to the airlines to enforce it. It's not at all clear how easy it is to get on one of these lists, but it's all too obvious that it's virtually impossible to get off one. Apparently the people who run US Airways had a no-fly list that included a certain "Kennedy," so that meant that the senior senator from Massachusetts -- incidentally the most famous member of the world's greatest deliberative body -- was kept off the plane by the airline's by-the-book gate agents until superiors were called upon to waive him aboard. That this happened in Washington was astonishing; that it also happened in Boston is stupefying.

Senator Kennedy, pooh-bah that he is, managed in the end to get his name off the list. That naturally makes us wonder if the suspected terrorist who goes by the similar name also now gets a hassle-free boarding card and little packet of pretzels. And what about all the other Edward Kennedys in the United States -- 295 of them, at least, according to a Web-based search of listed telephone numbers? Had they all been grounded? Is this why the airlines are in such poor financial shape?

A congressman named John Lewis, of Georgia, reported the same problem, as did a John Lewis of Houston. Imagine how many more there are where they came from.

What's so ludicrous about a system in which gate agents refuse to recognize Mr. Kennedy is the inconsistency of it all. Some passengers have reported being detained at some airports but not others. Does that make any sense? And it's not just passengers, it's their shoes, too. At BWI, you have to take them off; at Chicago's O'Hare you don't. Are shoes in Baltimore that much more dangerous?

Common sense says otherwise. But we forget, common sense has nothing to do with it.

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