Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Mark Shields: Maybe not the sharpest knife in the drawer

Miraculously, a single government policy initiative has united Washington, D.C. Elected officials who had been either locking horns or crossing swords over drugs, drones or deficits suddenly found themselves on the same side, thus reminding us of the timeless truth that in every political struggle you ever find yourself in, there will always be someone on your side you wish devoutly was on the other side.

What, you ask, was this bold, fresh idea? The announcement from the Transportation Security Administration that, as of April 25, it will be all right for passengers to carry pocketknives onto the nation’s airliners.

The reaction was immediate. Liberal Democrats stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Delta’s chief executive officer, Richard Anderson, who objected to the “additional risk to our cabin staff and customers.” Conservative Republicans embraced the Coalition of Flight Attendants Unions, representing nearly 90,000 members, whose sense of outrage can be seen in these words: “We are the last line of defense in aviation security, and time does not change the fact that we were among the first to die in a war we did not know we were fighting on Sept. 11 …”

Rep. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat (now running for John Kerry’s vacated Senate seat), was joined by New York Republican Michael Grimm in introducing the “No Knives Act,” which would repeal the TSA policy change. The Markey-Grimm bill has been endorsed by unions representing the pilots and the air marshals who are adamantly opposed to the reintroduction of knives into their planes.

We continue to bear painful witness in our nation to the political muscle of the National Rifle Association. But the National Knife Association? No such group can be found. There is an American Knife and Tool Institute (ATKI), a self-described “reasonable and responsible advocate for the knife-making and knife-using community,” which reveals on its website that it had been “instrumental in getting knives back on airliners for knife-owners.” ATKI, with its headquarters in Cody, Wyo., is not a dominant inside-the-Beltway force.

The language of the policy change confused me. The knife’s blade could not be more than “6 centimeters” long, which — I had to learn — translates to 2.36 inches. Wouldn’t “2″ or “2.5″ inches have been easier? Is the author of the regulation the kind of guy who would say that “football is a game of centimeters” or that “a miss is good as 1,609 meters”?

Perhaps it’s just lack of imagination, but what would I need a knife for at 30,000 feet when sitting frequently in too-close proximity to a couple of hundred strangers? How often does the dirt under my fingernails need to be cleaned out? Can I forego whittling one more duck for a couple of hours? Yes, those peanut and pretzel bags can be pesky to open, but is my switchblade really necessary? It is as reassuring as it is confounding to know that while a Swiss Army piece is welcome, smuggling 4 ounces of Pantene or Head and Shoulders on board will bring the wrath of the authorities.

TSA chief John Pistole told a House committee that the decision to allow passengers to bring small knives on planes was made because “these are not things terrorists are continuing to use” and that the new rule would enable security personnel to use the time saved (not spent measuring the length of blades) to search for non-metal explosives. Sorry, Chief, but on this one, I’m with the flight attendants, the air marshals, the pilots and every passenger I know.

To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at

Special to the Democrat


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