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End, don't mend, the Transportation Security Administration

Passenger pat-downs haven't dug up a single terrorist.

By Becky Akers / December 8, 2008

New York

Sometime in 2010, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will stop swiping airline passengers' bottled water and cups of coffee at security checkpoints. Instead, the agency will once again permit us to carry liquids and gels aboard planes.

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It's not that the TSA has finally realized mouthwash and moisturizer really can't explode, not even at 30,000 feet. Rather, it claims it has a combination of new contraptions to prove that. Advanced Technology X-ray machines, bottle scanners, and spectrometers will confirm that your unopened, factory-sealed Listerine is, well, Listerine.

The ban on liquids and gels has plagued passengers for over two years now, ever since British police insisted they had foiled a plot for bombing jetliners en route from London to the US and Canada. Supposedly, terrorists planned to smuggle the ingredients of an explosive elixir aboard their flights in soft-drink containers, then combine them to blow the planes sky-high.

Horrific, murderous – and virtually impossible. The TSA makes it sound as though anyone with a year of high-school chemistry and some hydrogen peroxide can whip up explosives in an airplane's restroom. But mixing a truly explosive bomb is a delicate operation. It requires exact temperatures, precise measurements and methods, and specialized equipment – all more commonly found in laboratories than lavatories. The procedure takes a while, too. And the fumes are likely to alert the passengers shifting from foot to foot in the aisle as they await their turn in the washroom.

In fact, chemists worldwide doubt that even the most accomplished terrorist can concoct such a combustive cocktail high above the Atlantic. A British jury this summer didn't buy the allegations, either. Due to lack of evidence, only eight of the plot's original 25 suspects finally made it to trial. As it turns out, police should have freed all the defendants: jurors refused to convict anyone of terrorism. They exonerated one man, returned no verdict on four others, and settled on lesser charges for the remaining three.

But none of these facts seem to matter to the TSA. It needs something to justify its existence: Despite six years of patting down passengers, it hasn't reported uncovering a single terrorist. No wonder it latched onto the nonsense about liquid bombs. Ferreting out and confiscating everyday substances not only makes work for 43,000 screeners, it also fools us into thinking this protects us.