Sunday, December 27, 2009

Preventing the last war

Brian Tannebaum asks the right question:
What if he tried to blow up the plane at the beginning of the flight?
He's responding, of course, to the new rule that will prevent people from standing or going to the toilet or having anything in their lap during the last hour of a flight. The rule is a response to the alleged effort to blow up a plane from Amsterdam as it neared Detroit.

Look, we're doing this backwards. We invest our energy, resources, and ingenuity in preventing what already occurred, or failed, rather than stopping the next thing.

  • 1993: A car bomb in the underground garage at the World Trade Center. We beef up security in underground garages.
  • September 2001: Some 19 men use box cutters to seize control of airplanes and fly them into the World Trade Center, the Penatagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. Underground garage security didn't help. We make it harder to take box cutters on airplanes.
  • December 2001: Richard Reid tries to blow up airplane with explosives in his shoes. We begin searching shoes for explosives.
  • December 2009: Farouk Abdul Mutallab allegedly tries to blow up airplane with explosive sewn into his underwear. To do this, he stands up near end of flight. We prepare to search underwear and force people to sit near end of flights.
But, see, they'll do something different next time.

The suicide terrorists, whether they're part of a network or just random crazies, work forward. They abandon what didn't work before and come up with a new plan. That's the whole point - they keep us on edge because we don't know what will happen next.

The TSA security gurus, on the other hand, work backward. They look at what didn't work before and devise systems to ensure that it won't work next time, either. The result inconveniences and annoys. It doesn't make us safer.

I've written before of the man who asked me, after a talk I'd given questioning the wisdom of racial profiling and of TSA confiscating nail clippers as a means of preventing terrorism, what I would suggest instead that would make him feel safer on airplanes. I said (more politely than this, I hope) that as a lawyer rather than a psychiatrist there was probably nothing I could offer for his mental health, but that the issue wasn't about feeling safer but about actually being safer. The distinction isn't subtle, but accepting it may be.

Each time someone whispers "terrorist," we cede a little more. Nail clippers and tweezers, shoes, belts, water bottles (the dangers of Aquafina cannot be overstated), pillows f'rgodssake. As Scott Greenfield notes, next they'll make us fly naked.

Scott sees this as silly. We'll all fly (naked) with our eyes closed so that we needn't look at the ugliness of our fellow passengers. Actually, it may be brilliant. If we have to fly naked, far fewer people will fly. With no passengers, we can be sure that the only passengers will be terrorists. We can then refuse to let them on the planes. With no one to fly, the planes will be grounded. AND THEN THEY CAN'T BE BLOWN UP IN THE AIR!

Oh, sure, it'll kill the airline industry. But that's a small price to pay for preserving freedom. And for protecting us against something we're far less likely to experience being attempted (unsuccessfully, by the way) than we are to be struck by lightening.

Anyway, it'll be great for developing the teleportation industry.

Beam me up, Scotty.


  1. You're right and this is great commentary. But two things bother me. 1. Are none of the people in charge of making the rules smart enough to see how dumb the rules they are making are, like you and I can? 2. Not to worry. The airlines won't go bust because the weak, lemming-like public will simply follow and adjust to any new rule the government creates, just like they always do "in the interest of their safety."

  2. Bruce Schneier writes about this at:

    "Our current response to terrorism is a form of "magical thinking." It relies on the idea that we can somehow make ourselves safer by protecting against what the terrorists happened to do last time."

    "The best defenses against terrorism are largely invisible: investigation, intelligence, and emergency response. But even these are less effective at keeping us safe than our social and political policies, both at home and abroad. However, our elected leaders don't think this way: They are far more likely to implement security theater against movie-plot threats."

    and best of all:

    "We'd do much better by leveraging the inherent strengths of our modern democracies and the natural advantages we have over the terrorists: our adaptability and survivability, our international network of laws and law enforcement, and the freedoms and liberties that make our society so enviable.

    The way we live is open enough to make terrorists rare; we are observant enough to prevent most of the terrorist plots that exist, and indomitable enough to survive the even fewer terrorist plots that actually succeed. We don't need to pretend otherwise."

  3. Schneier is terrific on this stuff. His work informs much of my thinking on these issues.