After Richard Reid tried to blow up a jet with explosives hidden in his shoe, leading all of us to submit to shoe inspection at the airport, I joked that we were lucky he didn’t hide a bomb in his underwear. Clearly, al Qaeda has been listening.
With the failed attempt to blow up a jet via bomber briefs, we all now all face the prospect of full body scans at check-in. This is no big deal for an Adonis such as myself, but could be embarrassing for the rest of you.
The letters pages of newspapers and online chatterboxes are filled with missives that it’s worth the embarrassment if it makes us safer. It’s only an inconvenience to millions of travelers, but it’s worth it to keep us safe.
That’s the problem, though. It won’t make us safer. It will only make us safer from underpants explosives, just as we were made safer from shoe bombs, but not undies, in 2002. After we’re safe from shoes and boxers, a guy with explosive dentures or a woman with C-4 gel implants will stroll past security….
Homeland Security is continually responding to the last threat, focusing on the specific article of clothing or technique applied most recently. It’s a foolish and wasteful approach, because it does more to create a show of activity than to generate real results.
I fly quite a bit and I can think of a number of ways that I could get something past security and onto a plane. On the plane, I can see how someone could take over the flight.
If I wanted to do it.
If I was willing to take the risk of getting caught.
If I was willing to die.
WHICH I’M NOT.
I, however, am not the kind of person TSA is trying to stop. Neither are you, most likely. The real threat comes from people who are willing, even anxious, to die.
Most security is based on the idea that the transgressor does not want to be caught and absolutely does not want to die. Almost everyone responds to this approach, because almost all of us like the idea of breathing for one more day. The guy we want to stop is definitely an outlier, although likely more common than one in a million. (Do the simple math. Scary.)
So how do we deal with this? First, we have to accept that we will not prevent every possible risk. Even if we make the skies 100% safe, which we cannot do, we cannot protect every shopping mall, subway tunnel, public building, sports stadium…. Our goal is to keep the largest number of people safe from real threats by allocating limited resources in the most effective way.
Thus, we must use the tools we have in place already. The United States government gave Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab a multiple entry visa that wasn’t revoked after his father—HIS FATHER—reported him as a risk to the U.S. embassy. The problem wasn’t that he wasn’t known, but that the information led nowhere, in spite of the fact that he boarded a transatlantic flight with a one-way ticket and no luggage.
This wasn’t a systemic failure. It was a human failure. After passage of the Patriot Act, allowing various agencies to share information more readily, human beings continue to miss the opportunity to connect the dots. The lack of full body scans wasn’t even on the Top Ten list in this mess.
As with the security breach that let two people—sorry, now they say it was three people—crash a White House dinner, we’re still waiting to see if anyone is actually held accountable for the mistake.
Meanwhile, if we took the money that would be spent on body imaging technology and invested instead in more effective updating, list management, information sharing and, yes, in some cases, profiling, we would achieve more security than we will ever get from looking under grandma’s bloomers.
There is no magic formula or technology that will secure the skies, or the nation. Demanding a magic machine to do the job is like asking for an end to human flaws. Noble idea, but it’s not going to happen.
Meanwhile, the less insightful among us scream for more show business, at the expense of real security.