Jewish World Review Oct.23, 2003 / 27 Tishrei 5764

Clarence Page

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Consumer Reports

Box Cutter Kid did us a favor


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | At first, I thought the college kid who sneaked box cutters on airlines "to test the security" would be spending the rest of his college years in the slammer.

But, judging by the way a lot of people are reacting to him, I would not be surprised to see the young man receive a medal, even if he has to receive it behind bars.

The heavy hand of the Bush administration's Homeland Security forces and Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft's beloved USA Patriot Act may yet clamp down upon the shoulders of Nathaniel Heatwole, 20, and throw him straightaway into the hoosegow.

After all, it's not nice to fool government officials, especially the type who carry guns and take pride in their ability to work long hours without smiling.

But a lot of people I have heard call in to radio and TV talk shows view young Heatwole as some sort of gonzo hero.

The Box Cutter Kid, they say, is a freelance gadfly who conducted the sort of investigative experiment on his own that reporters used to do more routinely, back in the days before editors grew squeamish about reporters misrepresenting themselves.

I suspect this sentiment is widespread.

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The American public has been very patient with the government's new security measures since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

But the government betrays our patience whenever it demands great sacrifice from us, the law abiding, while leaving gaping holes big enough for a brazen college student to slip through.

Why, we wonder, was young Heatwole able to slip bags containing box cutters and other banned items through airport security and hide them on Southwest Airlines planes on Sept. 12 and Sept. 14, according to an affidavit accompanying the criminal charge against him, despite the billions of dollars that the feds have spent on beefed-up airport security?

Why, we wonder, was young Nathaniel still walking around free for a month, even after sending a helpful e-mail to the federal Transportation Security Administration on Sept. 15 that described what he had done?

Heatwole, a junior at Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., was easy to track down at his Damascus, Md., home because his e-mail to TSA included his name, e-mail address and telephone number, according to court documents. One presumes that our federal agents know how to dial a telephone.

Yet, it was not until Oct. 16 that airline workers conducting routine maintenance stumbled onto plastic bags Heatwole hid that contained the blades, some bleach, clay shaped like an explosive and matches.

Only then did TSA track down Heatwole's e-mail and turn it over to the FBI, officials said.

Why, we wonder, was this happening while the rest of us in the air traveling public have been marching ourselves to the airport two hours early, standing in slow-moving lines, emptying our pockets of metal, removing our watches and jewelry, putting our laptops into the tray on the conveyor, taking off our shoes, removing our belt buckles, losing our little-bitty pen knives and fingernail scissors and, in some astonishing cases, mother's milk and asthma inhalers — only to set off the metal detector and receive a full-body pat-down anyway?

Heatwole, in his daring — and reckless — way, has done what many of his fellow citizens would like to do, were we not hampered by better judgment.

He has raised the nagging questions that many of us have about how safe Washington is really making us and the answers are not comforting.

"This is a bad experience," said Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, who oversees TSA. "But we may learn something about it that we can apply across the country."

Let's hope so. Heatwole reportedly said he staged his "act of civil disobedience" to bring attention to gaps in airline security.

He's hardly the only person who has complained, but his bold and audacious act instantly has grabbed more attention than all of the other critics combined.

It should not have come to this, but fortunately it also is not too late to beef up security, not only at our airports but at our still largely unguarded seaports, among other weak spots.

In the meantime, young Heatwole faces one federal felony count of carrying a concealed dangerous weapon onto an aircraft, which carries a possible penalty of up to $250,000 and 10 years in prison. I will not try to guess what the court is going to do with him, but I find it somewhat spiteful that he has been ordered in the meantime to stay away from airports.

Too bad. The court could be wasting a valuable resource. That Box Cutter Kid might know more about airline security than a lot of the professionals do.

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Up

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