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A bigger threat 

Before 9/11, airport security screening in the United States was inconsistent and demonstrably ineffective. Today, thanks to the Transportation Security Administration, airport security screening is inconsistent and demonstrably ineffective. The difference after spending $17 billion in the first two years alone? Airport screening personnel are better dressed. TSA screeners have natty uniforms boasting fauxbadges sewn over their chests and "TSA" in block capitals on the back, just below the collar (a miniature vanity license plate?).

"Airport security" is an oxymoron. Security violations are common. Newspaper reporters have carried weapons through checkpoints at several airports. A woman transported her husband's loaded .357-caliber handgun in her carry-on bag from Atlanta to Philadelphia (after having her bag hand-searched by a now-fired supervisor). A college student (using RDU) smuggled contraband onto Southwest Airlines planes, where it remained undetected for weeks. Humans smuggle themselves into the landing-gear wells of airplanes and ship themselves in air-cargo boxes from city to city. The GAO tested airport security in multiple cities and gave the TSA a failing grade.

The delays caused by TSA screening are infuriating (and avoidable). When my local grocery store has three customers in line, it opens another cash register. Not the TSA. Indeed, RDU has the distinction of being one of the worst 10 airports in the nation for TSA-caused delays. Meanwhile, the TSA boasts on its Web site that "... the TSA can and will deliver excellence in security and customer service." Should one inquire as to why not all screening lanes are open, one risks being arrested for "interfering" with these federal agents. (I recently learned at the Dallas-Ft. Worth airport that "TSA" stands for "Thousands Standing Around.") I have written and called the TSA with queries, none of which generated a reply (TSA's "excellence in ... customer service").

Having flunked inspection by the GAO, can the TSA be redeemed? Yes, but preferably with a change in mission. On 9/11, terrorists killed several thousand Americans, destroyed four planes and demolished or damaged symbolic, pricey buildings. However, during that same infamous week, 8,400 of us were killed by a more serious national threat: tobacco. According to the American Cancer Society, cigarettes kill 1,200 Americans daily; the U.S. death toll runs 440,000 per year (the population of Kansas City, Mo.). The costs to our nation ($97 billion each year) exceed all the terrorist acts in our history.

Since Congress has now compromised our Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches (ostensibly to protect us), we should capitalize on this historic opportunity. Instead of confiscating just cigarette lighters, let's have the TSA intercept cigarettes and other tobacco products as well. Unlike lighters, these pose a well-documented national threat. Instead of expensive metal detectors, the TSA can use those cute beagles that sniff out agricultural products in international arrival halls. Who knows? In this new role, the TSA may actually help society. An added benefit: Our newly designated "Tobacco Security Administration" can keep those swell uniforms with the "TSA" vanity plates. Think of the money we'll save.

--dr. david a. grimes

Reading comprehension

One of the requirements of being a new parent to the Durham Public School system--my 5-year-old son Spencer is a kindergartener at Creekside Elementary--is to read to your child a minimum of 20 minutes a night.

Half the time, I let my son pick any book he wants and I read it to him, encouraging him to identify, pronounce and spell high frequency words like "me," "to," "and," "see," "go," and other principle words a young mind could use to parcel together a sentence.

In the beginning he wanted me to read books about either nature (lizards, dinosaurs, lions and sharks) or sports (the autobiography by Redskin cornerback Brigg Owens about their 1972 Super Bowl season, how to race BMX, or the basic rules of soccer). But as the year went on, he began to get books out of his media center; books with levels that identify a reader's ability to comprehend. The purpose of the exercise is twofold: It encourages parents to take part in their child's education as well as teach their child that reading is fundamental.

In our family, both parents take turns reading to Spencer, who is usually joined by his little brother Cole--a 2-year-old on the brink of a cognitive explosion. So my wife has taken to reading books from Joy Berry's series A Children's Book About... with titles like Being Bossy, Whining and Throwing Tantrums (these just happen to be the most read at the present moment).

The other night I was diligently hacking away at the computer's keyboard when I heard a ruckus from the other room. I started to walk toward Spencer's room to check on the fuss when I heard his screams. Below the din of his howl, I could make out that my wife was in the middle of reading Being Bossy.

I walked closer to his room. And that's when I finally could make out his plea: "Tantrums!" he hollered, tears coming down his face. "I waaaannnnnttt to reeeeaaaddTantrums!" he cried out, making sure to lengthen his words for dramatic impact.

I don't think Being Bossy or Throwing Tantrums has sunk in yet.

--greg barbera

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