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SECURITY CAN'T BE SOLD TO LOWEST BIDDER

The president spoke about the "steadfast determination and resolve" the nation will bring to bear in avenging the carnage whose full dimension is still unknown.

All those agencies that failed the first test will try to succeed at the second. They will track down the culprits and bear down upon them with a terrible might.

Then, if the past is our guide, we will go back to being steadfast in our impatience with the annoying questions -- "Did you pack your own bag?" -- at the airport check-in counter. And resolved to glide through the metal detectors without the delay caused by the emptying of pockets.

The habit of complacency is far from the mind now. What is on the mind now is very clear.

Of course, we will not mind getting to the airport two hours ahead of time. Of course, we will understand if someone asks to search a bag. Of course, we will not berate the young immigrant who asks us meekly to hand over the Palm Pilot or the cell phone, even if the next shuttle is about to push off from the gate. Of course, we will spend "whatever it takes," as the president put it, to make us safe and secure again.

But in the days after, there is one thing -- and only one thing -- we know for certain about the devastating security lapses that allowed coordinated hijackings to become the means of attack against the United States. We know that everyone in our government, everyone in the airline industry, understood that a devastating security lapse was likely. Because they understood how lousy airport security is.

"We knew," said Michael Barr, director of aviation safety at the University of Southern California. "The mortal enemy of safety and security is complacency."

We knew because the government knew. It told us it knew. It told us in a stack of reports from an alphabet soup of agencies. Some reports came after other disasters, like the crash of TWA 800 in Long Island Sound. Others were ordered up again when nothing was done after a previous report.

Take, for example, the June 2000 report of the General Accounting Office. It says the screeners who run the metal detectors and are the last line of defense against a terrorist are poorly paid -- their wages are lower than those at the fast-food restaurants in airport food courts -- and poorly trained. They leave their jobs so quickly (turnover can reach 400 percent a year at some airports, the GAO found) that "screeners are being placed on the job without having the abilities or knowledge required to perform the work effectively."

This is the eighth report the GAO has issued on this particular topic since 1987. All of them said the same thing.

Maybe there is no screener in the world who could stop such brilliant and calculated evil. But maybe we should ask whether the airline industry should farm out the screening job to hundreds of different security companies -- looking, of course, for the lowest bidder.

This is one kind of American determination and resolve. We are determined to allow private industry to perform public duties. We think it works better that way. Much of the rest of the world thinks we are hard-hearted and downright foolish to take the spirit of free enterprise quite so far. They do not understand the all-American resolve to protect and defend the bottom line.

We watch the smoke still rising over the urban crater that was once the World Trade Center and we say, well, now things will be different. But that is what we said when we watched the twisted metal float in from the ocean off Long Island and saw the families go down to the beaches with flowers.

We said "never again" after TWA 800. Then they found out it was brought down by a fuel-tank problem. And then they formed a Federal Aviation Administration advisory panel, loaded with aviation industry heavyweights who said yes, there was a problem with the tanks and there are ways to fix it. They took a calculator and figured out how many future explosions would be prevented, and how many lives would be saved by a fix. They found out each life cost too much to save. And that was that.

Maybe things will be different this time. But making it so is going to take determination and resolve of a very different kind.

Newsday

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