Thursday, August 17, 2006

It's about time we stopped with the airport bullshit

I'm serious. I said this right after 9/11: the system didn't work, and it was clear that all the hoo-hah then about "take your shoes offf" and what-not was Kafkaesque nonsense(some jerk even asked me to scan my wallet in SJO, until I protested).

Now it seems, both Matthew Iglesias at the Prospect and Patrick Smith at Salon have started on a similar take. First Yglesias:

Precisely zero people have been killed in liquid explosive attacks on airplanes. The historical record indicates that we're pretty secure as things stand. But perhaps that's too flip. British law enforcement and intelligence services might not have done such a good job and hundreds could have died as a result of this bomb plot.

Nevertheless, people have been allowed to carry liquid onto planes since time immemorial and we're clearly not awash in exploding aircraft. What's more, inconveniencing air travelers isn't simply a matter of inconvenience. The more hellishly annoying you make it to fly, the more people will drive, either by switching methods of getting to the same destination or by choosing closer destinations. And air travel remains -- despite the risk of a bomb disguised as perfume -- enormously safer than driving. Despite our best intentions, in other words, security can kill.

It's not even clear how many lives can be saved by bomb-proofing airplanes. The dangerous thing about a guy with a bomb on a plane is primarily the fact that the guy has a bomb. Put him on a crowded rush-hour subway platform and he could kill a bunch of people with the blast and let the ensuing stampede do further damage. Or he could derail an Amtrak train. Most likely, such attacks would be less deadly than an exploding plane, but they'd still be pretty deadly. The ultimate number of lives saved could be quite small.

Indeed, as John Mueller pointed out in his seminal article, “A False Sense of Insecurity,” there's good reason to be very skeptical of terrorism-prevention schemes in general. Terrorism is exceedingly rare. We're blessed to live in a world where the actual number of people inclined to murder Americans in terrorist attacks is very small. As Mueller writes, "The number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began counting) is about the same as the number of Americans killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts."

Next, Smith:

News of last week's foiled London terror plot had finally begun to drop from the headlines, but not before spring-loading us to act like fools, and touching off massive changes in airport security that are destined to serve no real purpose. Liquids, gels and even certain cosmetics are no longer permitted aboard commercial flights in the United States. Prescription medicines and infant formula are exempt, but the list of contraband includes everything from drinking water to hairspray. Among the forbidden materials: mascara and liquid-filled baby teethers.

On flights to and from the U.K., hand baggage was banned entirely for several days. Passengers may now bring aboard one small parcel no larger than 17 by 13 by 6 inches -- roughly the dimensions of a laptop case. Computers and music players are allowed, but they must be removed from luggage for separate inspection.

It's difficult to tell how long the new prohibitions will last, or to what scope they might be expanded, but the rumblings are ominous. According to officials at TSA, the ban on liquids and gels is set to last indefinitely. Rumors have surfaced that laptop computers and other electronic devices could soon be restricted as well. Is airport security about to experience another, even more powerful paradigm shift than we saw in the aftermath of Sept. 11, resulting in even greater hassle than we're already used to? It's disheartening to think so, but certainly the stars are lining up that way.

To properly get our arms around the folly of it all, we need to look back at what happened in 1995. I'm referring to the notorious "Oplan Bojinka" -- which I wrote about last week -- a conspiracy linked to al-Qaida that was broken up by Philippine police only days before 11 U.S. jetliners were targeted for destruction. The parallels between the Bojinka and London operations are truly remarkable, involving similar explosive materials and a strikingly similar modus operandi. Yet on the heels of Bojinka, airports remained calm. Passengers were free to step aboard with their cups of coffee and bottles of shampoo. This forces us to wonder: If it is truly in the interest of air safety to stop passengers from bringing the most basic and commonplace personal items on board, why was it not done the first time?

Mostly because authorities then had sense enough to understand such rules would be highly disruptive, tediously work-intensive, and in the end not very useful. Ban what we may, it doesn't take the world's smartest criminal to realize there are an unlimited number of ways to smuggle a potentially dangerous item onto a plane: be it an improvised knife hewn from plastic, or explosives or flammables made from many different substances -- solids, liquids and powders. A person could spend all day concocting nefarious, and ultimately undetectable, instruments of destruction.

"We can't keep weapons out of prisons. How can we hope to keep them out of airports?" poses Bruce Schneier, a prominent security expert and the author of "Beyond Fear."

Eleven years ago we were sensible enough to accept this -- and it's not as if terrorism was something new, with the Lockerbie bombing and '93 World Trade Center attack still fresh in our minds. Lo and behold, no American planes were bombed with liquid explosives -- or any other kind -- in the interim. The true nuts and bolts of keeping terrorists away from planes, meanwhile, was going on out of view -- the responsibility of law enforcement and intelligence agencies, not part-time screeners at the airport. Numerous intelligence failures were brought to bear on Sept. 11, certainly, but unfortunately our initial reaction was to scapegoat airport security, whose role in the attacks was all but irrelevant. At the time, box cutters were not prohibited items. If they had been, the hijackers would have fashioned some other weapon.

The X-ray machine and metal detector are what they are: a serviceable final line of defense, chiefly helpful for keeping obvious weapons -- a handgun, for example -- away from commercial aircraft. They are not, and we should not expect them to be, front-line anti-terror tools.

"Terrorism needs to be stopped at the planning stages. That's where our security can do the most good," Schneier says. "By the time the terrorist gets to the airport -- or the shopping mall, or the crowded movie theater -- it's too late."

To wit, neither the Bojinka plotters nor the London cabal ever made it to the airport. They were outfoxed ahead of time through the hard work of behind-the-scenes investigators.

Really, this has gotten past the point of absurdity. If you're flying, and you're doing that St. Vitus dance at the security checkpoint, there's only one reason, and one reason only: Bush failed to head the Aug. 6 2001 presidential daily briefing, and has failed to address the real issues involved in 9/11...other than caving into al Qaeda's demand and removing almost all troops from Saudi Arabia.

Anybody who's seen a prison drama knows that you can't make something 100% secure. So let's give up the damn illusion that we can. Or let's stop the "power play" with the passengers. We're the ones who're supposed to be in power anyway, in this country.

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