We have been told repeatedly by our government that our approach to security in the post-9/11 era is to deploy "multiple layers" of precautions.
Air travelers are familiar with these layers.
They begin with the booking process, which now includes the requirement that full names and birth dates match those on government-issued ID cards. The subsequent layers include behind-the-scenes analysis of the data and the checking of watch lists. The layers continue at the airport with baggage screening and body scans. They end with a reinforced cockpit door in the aircraft, and maybe an armed air marshal or a gun-toting pilot.
It's a lot of layers.
We also have multiple layers for foreign visitors, and they start piling up early in the process.
If you're from a Visa Waiver country, you need to go online in advance of travel, indicate your intent to visit the U.S. and wait for an "electronic authorization." (We are told the process is more user-friendly than it sounds.)
If you're not so fortunate as to be from a Visa Waiver country, the law requires you to visit a U.S. Consulate for an in-person interview as part of the visa application process -- and that is not user-friendly if you're nowhere near a consulate.
According to the U.S. Travel Association, there are only four such offices in all of India. To put that in perspective, divide India's population of 1.2 billion by four, and you get the approximate population of the U.S.
For residents of Manaus, Brazil, which has nonstop air service to the U.S. but no consular office, the interview requirement means a roundtrip journey of 2,500 miles within Brazil just to visit a U.S. Consulate.
To reduce the burden on foreign visitors, U.S. Travel has been lobbying hard for a proposal to test videoconferencing as an alternative to the in-person interview.
It's a good idea, but it won't solve all the problems.
In Buenos Aires, which has a U.S. consular office, just getting an appointment for the interview takes from three to six weeks, according to the U.S. State Department's website.
About the only good thing about that kind of delay is that it gives applicants time to prepare. Websites have sprung up all over the world offering soothing advice about what to expect, what to bring, how to act.
We believe it's time for a sober reassessment of our many layers, some of which, like the interview requirement, are specific congressional mandates that give the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security no discretion or flexibility. The proposal to use videoconferencing as an alternative to in-person interviews, for example, requires an act of Congress.
We believe the government's underlying strategy of multiple layers is a sound one. We learned that centuries ago, when we started putting walls around castles and moats around the walls.
But we are not building a fortress here. If every traveler is subjected to every layer in equal measure, we end up with overkill, wasted resources and delays. Anything that impedes travel is an impediment to everything that travel facilitates, including commerce and education.
We need to bring more intelligent risk assessment back into this process.
Common sense suggests that not every grandmother should have to remove her shoes and submit to a full body scan at the airport.
It also suggests that the interview requirement need not be universal to be effective.
This column appeared in the Aug. 9 issue of Travel Weekly.