The cost of continuing vigilance
They closed down the Atlanta airport last Friday.

AM radio reported that security had been violated. Somebody ran through the baggage screening checkpoint with a gun. Or maybe it was a bomb. In any case, whoever it was escaped from security by running down the up escalator, jumping on a shuttle train, and disappearing into the crowd.

What can you do but close down the airport? They stopped all the incoming flights, and refused to let another airplane take off. They evacuated the whole airport, all the concourses, all the ticket areas and baggage claim areas. Everybody in the airport was herded out into the street to wait.

They waited ! passengers waiting to fly away and others just waiting to retrieve their suitcases. They waited as security and law enforcement professionals did their job of checking the airport for guns and bombs. It was hours later before the all-clear sign, and even longer before operation of the busiest airport in the country returned to normal.

The headline on Saturday's newspaper proclaimed: "Haltsfield" (instead of Hartsfield, as in Hartsfield International Airport, get it?).

It turned out later that the incident wasn't anything sinister at all, despite early radio reports. It was just a University of Georgia football fan who had left his camera bag behind, rushed back to get it, and was hurrying to get on a plane (and didn't have time for screening niceties). Since when is stupidity against the law, anyway? Maybe it should be, but airport officials said there was no federal law the offender could be charged with ! nothing more serious than disorderly conduct.

Airport officials admitted that their reaction would have been a lot different if the event had happened pre-Sept. 11. The security approach since that epochal date ! especially in our nation's airports ! has been a lot more stringent, hopefully leaving little margin for error. In the post-Sept. 11 world, it makes sense that a person running through the baggage screening area must be assumed to be a terrorist.

Certainly the airport's approach of leaving nothing to chance, even if it disrupts the whole nation's flight schedules, made perfect sense at the time, even if one might try to argue in retrospect that it was unnecessary caution. The point is that all caution is necessary in this day and time, and the level of security effort necessary to avoid additional terrorist attacks is bound to result in some false alarms in the process.

As the Federal government takes over the screening checkpoints and ups the security ante throughout the nation, we can all look forward to being scrutinized and inconvenienced more than ever in the interest of protecting ourselves and our countrymen.

A concern that comes to mind is the monumental cost of closing down the Atlanta airport, and who pays the bill for what amounted to a big false alarm? It's a high-profile example of similar incidents that are taking place throughout the country during this anxious time; another example is the cost of closing an office building because of an anthrax scare. Better safe than sorry, as they say, but the accumulated costs of these events to the U.S. economy is a bill that we can ill-afford to pay in our slow economic times. The costs of Sept. 11 ! direct and indirect ! continue to mount.

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