Friday, January 08, 2010

Thoughts of Airline Security

My family and I were in Costa Rica during the failed Christmas Day terrorist bombing attempt on the Delta flight. When I heard that no one was killed or injured, my next thought was "Oh my god. They're gonna start searching our underwear now." Yes, I was seriously contemplating this. In fact, I wrote about explosive underwear on this very blog back in April 2007... No, I'm not a fortune teller or a seer of the future, it was just a matter of time, I guess.

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attempt I read all sorts of insane reports online. Supposedly the TSA was not allowing blankets on flights anymore (good luck finding those on any US carrier even before the attack); the TSA was not allowing people to read books or listen to iPods on flights; entertainment systems were being switched off on international flights and no one was permitted out of their seats in the last hour of the flight. All insane measures and absolutely believable since the TSA is involved. I don't know if any of these actually happened, but when my family was headed to the airport for our flight back home, we were expecting the worst.

Amazingly, we experienced none of that particular brand of idiocy. Did we completely avoid stupidity? Absolutely not. Our 3 small sons (and of course Alpaca and I) were patted down. Our four year old twins and 7 year old son were amused by this. I was not. We were also only allowed to take one carry on bag each - compared to a carry on and "personal item" which was previously permitted. That measure makes sense, since everyone knows that explosives are always placed in the second carry on bag. Bold and insightful move TSA! Over all though, it seems like we avoided the worst of government blind panic and reflex responses designed to lull the masses into a perception that their government is actually doing something.

My real problem is that the government (and in this case the TSA) is always insisting on learning the wrong lesson for some reason. I am not one of those who engages in 20:20 hindsight and analysis of how the terrorist should have been caught given all the information that the government had. It's always easy to see things in retrospect. My problem is that rather than trying to do things that would be effective, the government is doing things that it thinks look good or is just doing things for the sake of doing something.

Here's one thing that is guaranteed to work: profiling. Enough with political correctness. We know who the vast majority of terrorists and would be terrorists are: they are overwhelmingly male, between the ages of 18 and 35 and Muslim. You might not like it, but this is reality. Yes, there is a minority of terrorists that don't fall into this category, but if you want your security measures to be more effective, you need to focus them on where the threat is most likely to come from, not on 4 year old boys or 75 year old grandmothers.

Profiling, or call it focused measures, are used in every walk of life. Doctors give people vaccines and recommend preventative action based on patient risk factors. Military commanders concentrate their forces on the areas where military threats are likely to come from. Businesses focus their marketing dollars on those segments of the population who are most likely to buy their product. The government's security measures? In the interest of political correctness we insist on wasting our scarce resources on searching 4 year old boys and making sure no one brings hand cream on a flight.

Can we have some sanity in this process please?

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Kim Stiens said...

I kinda think the security we have right now is just fine. The way I see it, a plane is just not that good of a target. Yeah, when you can hijack it and run it into a building, that's fine. But if we keep the cockpit locked while its in the air, that's pretty much out the window. After that, all you've got is the possibility of killing the people on the plane, and why would you risk going through the pretty thorough security we have now when you could much more easily kill that same number of people in hundreds of other ways on the ground?

I'm not saying we should abandon airport security. I just don't think it really needs to work better... the worst we have is one guy, maybe once a year, getting a bomb on a plane, and most of those times they fail anyway. I think that's pretty effective security.

Shadox said...

Kim - that's a pretty bold stance that you are taking. No politician would ever be willing to take that position.

However, if you look at this rationally, the response to terrorism in this country has been completely hysterical. For example, over 40,000 are killed every year in traffic accidents. Yet no administration member and no-one in Congress has declared an all out war on auto accidents. Clearly deaths from this cause could be dramatically reduced through a combination of technological, regulatory and enforcement means.

However 3 people die in car accidents in Denver would yield zero newspaper headlines anywhere (with the possible exception of Denver) while "3 people are killed in a terrorist attack in Kalamazoo" would be blazed as the top story of most papers in the Western world. It's all about the sensationalism AND the APPEARANCE of action.