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).
You make a very valid point. America should the Israeli model for transit security. They focus on looking for terrorists whereas we’re still be stupid and looking for bombs.
T. J. Babson says
People often travel internationally with their entire families, so if the plane goes down everybody is killed. This makes people even more risk averse than usual.
Michael LaBossiere says
True, but the same risk aversion should apply to traveling by car or SUV with the whole family.
You do this very often: You confuse media response with public response. People didn’t stop flying after the terrorist was caught. I’d bet 90% of people would just as soon security went on as before and that they not get hassled any more at airports.
I actually do think the security is responsible for a large portion of the safety on airlines. There are plenty of jihadists willing to blow themsleves up, but vegetable markets in the middle east present far easier targets than airplanes, even though the destruction of an airplane would have far more impact as far as terrorism goes. So yes, the airline attempts have been few, precisely because the terrorists know the security is in place.
The terrorists are trying exotic things like liquids and underwear bombs because it’s really not that easy to get something else on right now. And if you get a box cutter on, you’re gonna get beat to death when you pull it out. The cockpit doors are now much more secure so Habib can’t just slide it open and fly the friendly skies for Allah.
So, we need to keep adjusting our measures, because our enemies will keep adjusting thiers. And I firmly believe in profiling as a matter of safety; only a fool says you dodn’t look more closely at the people most likely to kill people. The Israelis shamelessly profile and have the safest of airlines records despite being the biggest target.
Michael LaBossiere says
I didn’t confuse the media with the public. The media folks tend to really push the scary stories, so it is always wise to do a “reality check.” The general public varies in its response. In my own case, the fact that some evil fool set himself afire doesn’t make me worry more. After all, I know that I am far more likely to die while running before my flight and even more likely to die while driving to the airport. I only worry about terrorism in very limited situations, since I am reasonable good at the odds. Sure, some evil bastard might light up the plane I happen to be on, but the odds are such that it would be irrational to be afraid (at least in most situations). After all, I drive to work everyday knowing that 40,000+ people don’t make it home from the roads each year.
Some of the security works. Closing off the pilot section is a good idea-provided the pilots keep it closed. I have seen them open it up for trips the bathroom. Sure, a stewardess stands in the aisle, but that is a risk. Basic checks are a good idea as well, since there is a chance to catch something and some folks might be deterred by the chance of being caught. But, the security is fairly weak and it is easy to get things through. For example, when I flew this last time I had a steel water bottle with me. I was asked what was in it, but there was no actual check to confirm it was empty.
I have no opposition to profiling, provided that people are not mistreated needlessly and the methodology is properly proven as effective. Of course, the data must not just be race based.
I completely agree. Terrorists exist because we think it’s fair to allow them to.
“After all, I drive to work everyday knowing that 40,000+ people don’t make it home from the roads each year.”
Yes–but how many people DO make it home?
Let’s not forget that there are a myriad of rules in place to minimize traffic fatalities. The death rates per mile travelled when comparing air and road travel are about the same.
I cannot say that the rules in place do not make terrorists shy away from trying to destroy plans; I think they do. Very few people would fly if there were no security measures in place. What if you could walk right off the street and onto the airplane?
I’m all for minimizing the hassle to the average person.
As far as your bottle goes, it did go through xray, right? And I’m assuming that they found nothing that looked like a detonator in your stuff, and you weren’t on any terror watch lists. Nor did you pay cash for your ticket. Where was the indication tha you had the capability or desire to blow up a plane? When was the last time a blond haired, blue eyed guy blew up a plane anyway?
Michael LaBossiere says
Most people do make it home. That is why I don’t worry that much when I drive-beyond paying attention to the possibility of death.
The death rate per mile is not really a good point of comparison.
At one time people could do just that. I do agree that security should be in place; but it should be security that works.
The bottle did go through an x-ray check, but they did not check to see what was in it. I also had plenty of electronics on me, including a GPS watch. Of course, I don’t look like a terrorist, except for the domestic sort.
The former head of security for such things with the Isreali government was interviewed about this. His name is Isaac Yeffet and he IS in the know on such things. Isreal has it right and we do not. Spending all the money in the world will not help you and making it a pain in the ass for law abiding citizens will not either. Profiling and not being PC anyone? We are our own biggest problem. Terorists would not be a problem if we didn’t let them. End of story.