by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

Over lunch with some friends who work at a bank, the conversation turned to the smell of money.

“We had a baker that came in every day at noon,” one teller said. “I loved the way his deposits smelled.” Another teller complained, “We had a guy that owned a fresh fish market, and I hated handling his money. It reeked of fish.”

I had always heard of “the smell of money” but never imagined the expression referred to powdered sugar and fish.

I know from experience that fear also has an odor. If you have ever been with a large group of people who become suddenly scared, you know what I mean. Physiologists have traced this sensation to chemicals released by the sweat glands when someone is stressed or afraid.

For contractors with the Department of Homeland Security, I imagine fear smells like money. Ever since Sept. 11, 2001, many of us have been afraid and willing to do whatever it takes to avoid another attack. By simply invoking the memory of that day, politicians and government contractors can get us to agree to new technologies or measures without questioning the effectiveness of the proposed solution.

After the most recent terrorist plot was foiled, various Beltway bandits smelled an opportunity and started offering up all sorts of fancy gadgets to help alleviate our rational and irrational fears.

Current gizmos include a machine to test any liquids that you might want to bring on your next airline trip. For only a few billion dollars (or 10 or 20), we can make sure Grandma’s can of Ensure isn’t going to take the plane down. Another new invention takes a full-body X-ray of passengers as they get on the plane, and yet another idea being tested is to tag passengers and their luggage with little radio bugs that can be traced throughout the airport just like the little ID tags that the Humane Society will implant in your dog for $20.

Already being deployed in U.S. airports are “puffer” machines developed by GE Security to detect explosive residue on would-be terrorists. It works like this: You step into a machine that looks like a telephone booth, and it “puffs” a blast of air at you to dislodge any particles or vapors from your person or clothes. The machine analyzes the blown-off materials for explosive residues or gunpowder. GE has sold 64 of the machines so far for $170,000 each.

Of course, this machine will only work if you have explosives on your clothes, skin or carry-on bags. Smart terrorists might think to have one person handle the explosives and then clean and seal the container before giving it to the bomber who would take it on the plane. Because of the time involved in running people through this machine, only a few travelers are randomly selected to be puffer-tested.

One security expert said, “It’s like Las Vegas. We’re gambling on the odds that we’ll get the right person at the right time.”

Though the machines might be ineffective in stopping terrorists, they do seem to effectively reduce our fears.

“Customers love it,” said Brenda Geoghagan, director of public information at Tampa International Airport, where one of GE’s puffer machines is installed. “I think they feel that it’s the latest technology, and any new technology for security people take very positively.”

Rational people might point out that because 43,443 people died in car accidents in the United States last year and zero people died from terrorist attacks on airplanes in the United States last year, you should be more afraid to get in your car than on an aircraft.

Rational people might also point out that there are better ways than random sampling, such as behavioral profiling, to detect who might be a terrorist and need to be “puffed.”

Rational people might point out that if we took the tax money used to subsidize the airlines and pay for all these new gadgets, we could develop a 21st century rail system that would get you where you need to go quickly and comfortably. Trains are also a bit harder to steer into buildings.

But preying on people’s fears, though highly profitable, is not about making rational decisions.