By now everyone knows about the terrorist who set himself on fire trying to blow up a plane on Christmas. The response was typical-a media circus and government officials leaping to swing the barn door shut after the horse had escaped (again).
While I am concerned about such incidents, the response to this one nicely shows how poor people are at proportional threat assessment and at coming up with effective security measures.
First, in regards to proportional threat assessment: people tend to blow terrorism far out of proportion. Yes, being killed by a terrorist attack is bad. But, so is being killed in a traffic accident or dying from an untreated disease, or being killed in a robbery, or perishing from contaminated foods. When we receive news of some new terrorist attempt, it is followed by a frenzy from the media and a surge in government activity. Money is pledged, new measures are dreamed up and so on. However, the odds of being harmed by a terrorist are astronomical and, as such, the response to such attempts seems to be way out of proportion. After all, think about all the people who died on Christmas from accidents, disease, crime and so on. Yet, the story of some fool who burns himself with a poorly made bomb is what dominates the news and spurs a strong reaction. I am not arguing that we should ignore the terrorists, but the response should be based on the number of people who are actually at risk and the seriousness of the threat.
Second, in regard to security measures: I actually do not have much to say here that has not already been said about the security theater that passes for a defense against terrorism. While some security is better than nothing, we should use only what really works and get rid of what does not. After all, it makes no sense to waste time and money to achieve (at best) a delusion of safety. The way the safety “planning” seems to work is that something happens and then the government folks present some absurd restrictions that are supposed to deal with the situation that has already happened. In the latest case, the new measures included such brilliant ideas as not allowing people to keep things in their laps and not allowing passengers to move around an hour before landing (better hit the bathroom before then). While this will deal with a terrorist who simply must have a bomb in his lap, this will not deal with anything else. No doubt if a terrorist attempts to smuggle a bomb in a Harry Potter book, Harry Potter books will be banned.
Security measures should be designed to deal with what is probable and to do so in advance. That is, likely methods of attack should be carefully considered and defenses set up to match those. The current system seems to be fool driven-that is, some fool tries to make explosive shoes or liquid bombs and then the politicians put on a clown show to try to re-assure the public that they are doing something. However, it seems unlikely that the security methods are really doing much. After all, it has been well established that it is easy to get weapons and other items through security. The main reason that there has been relative safety in the air is that the attempts seem to be very few and mostly incompetenlty done (with some horrible exceptions).