Security theatre of the absurd

I have written before about the ridiculous state of aviation security (and general anti-terrorism measures) in the US. The short version is that our security stinks. It’s ineffective whilst also being inconvenient. I would cheerfully put up with effective security. I will not cheerfully put up with anxiety-laden, bloated, and reactionary security techniques.

Let’s take, for example, the Christmas Day incident. A Nigerian man is said to have attempted to detonate a bomb on a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. You are doubtless familiar with the incident, in which the man lit some kind of explosive powder on fire during the flight’s final approach. It goes without saying that I’m horrified by how close he came to pulling of his plan. In my comments here, I do not want to be seen to be making light of terrorism, but rather pointing out the US government’s utterly incompetent response and plan.

Let’s start with the response. In my last post on security, I made a joke about how we all have to take off our shoes because of the “shoe bomber” and I wondered what would happen if there were ever an “underwear bomber”. In the it-is-no-longer-possible-to-satirize-life department, I note the following: because this man planned his attack for the final approach phase, the TSA is ordering that no one be allowed to leave their seats or have any access to their belongings in the final hour of flight. (They’ve now relented and said that you can have printed reading material.) Really? Apparently, the TSA believes that ALL terrorists will do their work in the approach phase of the flight now, since that’s the most recent example.

But that’s not all. Airlines are required to disable the so-called “moving map” displays. One wonders if anyone has told the TSA that you can just look out the window to get your current position, if you’re over land. Or if they make a rule requiring you to look away from your window for most of the flight, I would observe that anyone with a watch can figure out that, say, four hours into a scheduled eight-hour flight, you are half way. OMG! Better ban watches too.

They’ve announced that passengers may be physically searched prior to boarding. This was done after 9/11 and again after the shoe bomber. Both times it lasted until TSA agents were caught out in inappropriate touching. The same thing will happen this time, I’m sorry to say. As detestable as those full-body scanners are, they are the only way to really search passengers in the least possible invasive manner. Of course, these rely on humans to work, and that’s where things break down. Take liquids, for example. I routinely forget to remove liquids from my carry-on bag. 90% of the time, nothing happens.

The extreme response doesn’t stop with ridiculous policies. Passengers and airline crews have bought into the fear. Two men on a flight from Orlando to Phoenix were detained and questioned by the FBI after “passengers aboard U.S. Airways Flight 192 from Orlando, Fla., on Saturday night reported that two men, described as Middle Eastern, were acting strangely and talking loudly to each other in a foreign language.” I don’t fault hyped-up passengers for their racist paranoia here. I do blame the airline crew and the authorities for not reacting more calmly. “Thank you for your concern, but I believe those two guys were just yucking it up. We do not require all yucking up to be conducted in English.”

Oh, and heaven help you should you be feeling a bit ill and linger in the restroom longer than someone deems acceptable. Also on Saturday, on the same flight from Amsterdam to Detroit which was affected the day before, “a passenger from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., said a man who had been sitting in the last row of the plane had been in the restroom for a long time when an air marshal, his badge visible, began knocking on the door, but received no answer.” The restroom user again was detained and questioned by the FBI. “Sir, exactly how many toilet paper squares did you use? Please explain the extra flush.”

The overblown response by the TSA, FBI, passengers, and crew also obscures another big problem. US authorities were warned by the father of the man who tried to down the plane on Friday. He was on watch lists. Al Qaeda had published a warning. Except for taking out the full-page ad the Washington Post, the US (and European, I should add) authorities had every possible sign that this man was dangerous. Still, he was allowed to board the flight and was not subjected to extra searches.

This is what I mean by ineffective and inconvenient security. To reach true security, we’d need to have El Al style security with pre-flight background checks, lengthy interviews at the airport, rigorously trained staff, thorough (and invasive) searches, and on-board armed agents. I’m not advocating that, but it’s the only way to have truly secure flights.

Until then, it’s mostly theatre. All the TSA agents at the airport screaming at you to remove your shoes and to place your liquids in a bag are part of a typical problem: we are responding to the most recent threats. We are not anticipating what’s coming next or devising rational plans. We are about noise over substance.

I won’t be popular with my liberal friends for saying this, but we’re seeing another failure of President Obama’s leadership. He has an opportunity here to reshape not only aviation security, but also our entire response to threats of terrorism. And instead he reinforces the current plans, mostly devised by President Bush. Fear triumphs over reason.

And what of the American public? We’ve gladly given up all kinds of privacy, all in the name of “anti-terrorism”. No one seems to mind that internet and phone records are available to government agencies for the asking. We have stopped caring that phone calls are routinely intercepted. We do not guffaw when informed that our government is maintaining “no fly” lists. We pack our 3 ounce bottles and place our scissors in checked bags, in order to keep our skies safe. Maybe it’s time to start calling legislators to ask for a reasonable response. As long as our current plans continue, we are not very safe. But, hey, at least thousands of TSA workers have jobs, with more hiring every day!

Maybe this is all part of Obama’s stimulus package? At least that’s the way it’s going to be as long as we keep relying on the TSA to tell us how dangerous things are and how many thousands of people it will take to keep us safe.

Illustration from Does It All Matter?

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6 Responses

  1. PAMELA RW says:

    When I flew in and out of Tel Aviv last year I was stunned by the difference in Israeli vs. US security measures. I was not forced into ridiculous acts of disrobing, de-shoeing or dumping my water bottle. Rather, the baggage was thoroughly screen in my presence and members of my party were singled out for questioning by young security attendants who clearly were well trained. Since we all know the Israelis have the best security in the world, I am of the opinion that if they don’t do it, it shouldn’t be done.

  2. Bob Chapman says:

    I totally agree about the current, ineffective measures now in place. Then again, the Bush administration did not want to create the TSA. That is, they didn’t want to create the TSA until September 11, 2001.

    It would be nice if the current administration could have made real change in this area. Your criticism could be spot on, except how many top level priorities can an administration have.

    There has been one change for the better, though. We haven’t had administration officials using this (so far) to create fear in the populace. Everything has been more-or-less low key, even if predictable. Let’s see if they will change the response we see a month or year later. That is, will something effective come from this event this time.

    We can hope.

  3. Laura says:

    You get no argument from me. This behavior is crazy. Who really thinks that these steps will be effective in stopping someone who wants to cause mayhem? They’re going to wait until the approach? Come on. Why on earth are we doing this?

  4. Dan J-S says:

    Thank you, Scott. I agree with all of your points. Above all, I am disappointed that Obama isn’t exercising true leadership but repeating Bush era approaches. I suspect Rahm’s political calculus is behind that. That and the media noise machine which doesn’t permit serious dialogue but only talking points on our pressing issue.

    And I second adopting El Al style security over our ridiculous disrobings and in-flight restrictions.

  5. Kathy says:

    Great post. I am a new reader and will be back for more.

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