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A time to focus on airline security

Investigators have not yet determined what caused Paris-bound TWA Flight 800 to burst into flames and plummet into waters off the coast of Long Island moments after taking off from Kennedy International Airport on Wednesday. The speculation has been wild and mostly counterproductive.

Some believe a bomb downed the Boeing 747, others think it may have been a mechanical problem. Still others have suggested a missile attack may have led to the crash that killed 230 people, including 18 crew members. No one knows for sure, but blind guessing only stirs public fear and makes this human catastrophe even more painful for the friends and families of those who were aboard.

Patience and calm should be in order as investigators salvage wreckage from the ocean and begin to piece together clues about the cause of the explosion. If it turns out the crash was an act of terrorism, the goverment has no greater priority than to bring those responsible to justice.

Whatever the cause, the discussions about airline security need to go forward. Information that has surfaced in the days since the crash seems to point to frightening weaknesses in airport safety. Most U.S. airports, for example, lack an advanced system to detect plastic explosives. This, despite a mandate from Congress. Such systems are in place in other nations, such as South Korea and Britain. Why does the United States, which is supposedly home to the world's safest airports, lack this equipment at most airports?

And why, as Morris D. Busby, an international security and counterterrorism expert, asks in the New York Times, does the Federal Aviation Administration allow airlines to be in charge of their own security at airports? Workers who operate metal detectors and X-ray machines are generally employees of private, competitive companies that can be tempted to pare down security to turn bigger profits. There is no room for such cost-cutting when human lives are at stake.

Just as the recent ValuJet crash over the Everglades focused needed attention to airline safety, this tragedy could have one positive consequence. It could bring about security improvements that some would argue are long overdue.