A fine line between precaution and panic

Some new security steps, while well-meaning, may be overkill.

As part of the security checks at Detroit's City Hall, people entering the building are screened for the usual weapons: guns, knives, and explosives.

But the list of contraband also includes several other items: curling irons, tweezers, and, perhaps mercifully for co-workers for more than security reasons, dental floss.

The range of things people can't bring into the building points up a dilemma facing post-Sept. 11 America: where, exactly, to draw the line on security measures.

As the country goes on "high alert" in anticipation of possible reprisals for the US bombing raids in Afghanistan, cities, businesses, and even individuals are struggling to find the right balance between precaution and panic.

Many of the new measures do, of course, raise basic questions about how much personal freedom people are willing to give up in the name of safety. But beyond the clash of principles, there are more subtle issues surrounding what are the most effective and practical measures to take to deal with a threat that is unseen and unknown.

"You can look at some of the things we've done as a little silly, like taking away nail clippers from passengers boarding airplanes," says Richard Stoll, a political scientist at Rice University. "But I think it also sends a message about how serious we are."

Certainly, much of the new alertness and vigilance is understandable - and warranted. Male passengers on a Chicago-bound flight earlier this week, for instance, helped subdue a confused man who entered the plane's cockpit and scuffled with a pilot.

Yet in other cases, Americans, official and otherwise, aren't sure what to do. Consider the case of Amy Ulland, who works in a Virginia high-rise near the Pentagon.

She recently pulled into the building's garage without a parking pass. After some argument, the security-conscious attendant agreed to let her stay, but insisted on checking her car, ostensibly for bombs. He peered into her trunk for a few seconds and then muttered, "You know what? I have no idea what I'm looking for."

Amid the new climate of fear, most people seem willing to give security officials the benefit of the doubt, especially at airports. A Harris Interactive poll, for instance, found 4 out of 5 Americans willing to be fingerprinted before boarding in order to guarantee airline safety.

This weekend, passengers headed to Washington's Reagan National Airport on the Delta shuttle from New York were given strong warnings before boarding. The bathrooms on the plane would be closed. No passenger would be able to stand up during the flight. And if anyone did stand up, the plane would be immediately diverted to another city.

No matter. Many passengers were just grateful to be flying into the airport - which is close to downtown - so they didn't complain about the new strictures.

Indeed, because terrorists can presumably strike at any time and in any place, many individuals and groups are pushing to secure all aspects of daily life.

In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daley unveiled a plan last week that would require the city's 2,500 high-rise buildings (those 80 feet or taller) to have emergency evacuation plans on file with the city, to hold safety drills every six months, and to distribute written evacuation instructions, perhaps on wallet-sized cards for easy retrieval.

At the United Nations headquarters in New York, dump trucks filled with sand are blocking all roadways leading to the compound - ostensibly to prevent car-bomb attacks. California Highway Patrol officers are patrolling the Golden Gate Bridge and other crossings. Even Disneyland and Disney World are taking steps to increase safety.

Yet the push for security can lead to what some see as overreaction - to measures that have questionable security value.

Near St. Louis, a fifth-grader was suspended for three days for drawing a picture of the World Trade Center towers under attack, and then grinning when asked by a school official why he had taped the picture to the outside of his study cubicle.

And even airline industry experts acknowledge that some of the measures in force at airports, such as a ban on curbside check-ins, aren't especially useful in the post-Sept. 11 environment.

Eliminating "curbside check-in really is to try to avoid someone getting on the plane with a bomb - on the theory that they would check in and never get on," says David Stempler of the Airline Travelers Association here. But now that terrorists have shown a willingness to commit suicide to carry out their acts, "a lot of these measures are not really focused on the reality of today."

Contributing: staff writer Kris Axtman in Houston and Craig Savoye in St. Louis.

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