Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Perlmutter says terrorism vs. privacy is the next great debate

It took about 70 years from the time of man’s first flight for airlines to implement passenger security screening. It’s taken far fewer years since the 2001 World Trade Center attacks for the concept of security to begin butting up against issues of personal privacy.

Colorado Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-Golden, joined the National Center for Intermodal Transportation and the Mountain-Plains Consortium Feb. 21, challenging members to help establish the line between security and civil rights.

“Americans are a mobile people who take their ability and right to move from point ‘A’ to point ‘B’ very seriously,” Perlmutter said. “It is a really difficult balancing act between security and liberty.”

The congressman, speaking at the one-day Intermodal Transportation Safety and Security workshop on the DU campus, was one of several experts invited to participate. The event was co-hosted by DU’s Intermodal Transportation Institute. Other participants included retired Gen. Mason Whitney, director of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security, and authorities on homeland, airport, cargo and commercial transportation.

“We’re in the process of asking people to share with us their thoughts and ideas on many issues of transportation and security,” said Patrick Sherry, director of the National Center for Intermodal Transportation.

Sherry said the workshop would help frame the discussion and educational outreach in the coming year.

While the first non-combat attack on an American passenger plane came in the 1950s, and hijacking became a concern in the 1960s, it wasn’t until 1973 that airlines began security screenings, Perlmutter said. But after Sept. 11, the government has ramped up security at an increasing pace, banning liquids, requiring passengers to go through tough screening procedures and to even take off their shoes.

“Help us to try to figure out when we’ve gone too far,” Perlmutter said.

As a member of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Perlmutter said he’s concerned not only with airlines, which present a direct point of contact with passengers for security screening, but also with rail and public transportation systems, which offer would-be attackers multiple points of contact.

In addition to securing rail yards and guarding against the sabotage of rail cars carrying harmful chemicals through urban areas, Perlmutter said there may need to be better security solutions for commuters who ride light rail and buses to work. Airline passengers may put up with half-hour waits at screening stations because flying is relatively rare. But for a daily commute, strict screenings would likely be unworkable, he said.

One area of research already in the works is taking place in Colorado. At a government facility for transportation technology research outside of Pueblo, Perlmutter said officials are designing simulated light rail and subway systems to study ways of stopping commuter and rail terrorism.

No government can guarantee absolute security, the congressman said. But he promised the United States is doing everything it can to protect people.

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