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A rant about airport security

Posted on December 30, 2009

This is sort of a rant, so read no further if you dislike such things, full of rhetorical questions and indignation as they tend to be…

Here we go again.  Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab hides explosives in his underwear in another ill-fated attempt to take down a jetliner and we will now suffer another round of absurd airport security measures culminating in back-scatter x-ray systems that will render passengers naked to TSA screeners.  When you do make it on your international flight, you’ll be forced to surrender your blanket and not leave your seat for one hour prior to landing.  So if Abdulmutallab had tried to light the fuse half way across the Atlantic, would we now sit out the middle hour of the flight or just the whole thing?  Are the people in charge of our security simply nuts?

We’ll spend untold millions on the wrong problems, further invade the privacy of those who are not accused of any crime, and wring out of the air travel system any remaining vestige of efficiency.  Remember the days when air travel was glamorous and people actually dressed up to fly? 

Can we all agree that screening procedures are absurd?  We stand in long lines and watch as TSA screeners force old people out of their wheelchairs, babies out of their strollers, and four-year-olds to hand over their teddy bears for x-rays.  Not a single person in the terminal — not the screeners, not the passengers waiting to board, not the flight crews — believe these people are even remotely a threat.  But we do the exercise over and over again. That has be some definition of collective insanity and it puts my teeth on edge every time I witness it.  If the codger in the bright green whale pants and “World’s Greatest Grandpa” tee-shirt is really a threat, then I’ll give up flying and declare victory for the terrorists.  Yet we’ll robotically frisk the poor guy and declare him “okay to board” as if we have reassured ourselves of something we didn’t know the minute he walked in the terminal.

We prefer to waste huge sums of money on technology that does not really solve the problem rather than use common sense.  So when back-scatter systems are in place all over the world (tip of the day: invest in those companies as quickly as you can), a determined terrorist can do what prison inmates have done for decades: hide items in body cavities.  It was successfully done earlier this year when the chief of Saudi intelligence was assassinated.  Or will we bow to the current logic and require body cavity searches?

What should we do instead?  After all, Al Qaeda does seem genuinely intent on bringing down an airplane.  I’d suggest good old common sense, human intelligence, and connecting the dots.  Take the current case.  Abdulmutallab’s own father — one of the more prominent men in his country — contacted the US Embassy and said he feared his son’s radicalization and that he might pose a threat.  Yet the State Department person hearing that concern did not revoke the kid’s visa!  Abdulmutallab bought his $3,000 ticket with cash.  No flags go up?  Some reports said he checked in no bags.  For a two week trip to the US?  No one thought this was strange?  The aforementioned State Department official did cable the name to officials in the US, but it was not added to the No-Fly list?  Really? 

Here’s my suggestion to those in charge of our security. Just do your job.  The system is failing not because we need more rigorous screening at airport security gates, but because basic alarms are not being raised when they should and even then (do we need much more alarm than someone’s own father pointing the finger?), the right people are not doing the right things.  We could have prevented 9-11 if that basic connecting of the dots had happened, as the 9-11 Commission report makes clear.  The failure to connect even obvious dots in this more recent case points to how little we have done to address the right issues. 

Look to the Israelis and the safety record of their flag carrier, El-Al.  They seem to understand security in ways that continue to elude us.  Asking the right questions of the right people and looking for patterns or anomalies and then following up makes a lot more sense than what we are doing in our airports.  If you ask me, Abdulmutallab was successful in many ways.  He may have failed to  bring down the individual jet in which he was a passenger, but his one act will now cost millions of dollars, bog down our transportation system, further erode protections of our privacy, and further render us “sheeple” as we shuffle our way through longer security lines, audience participants in a Kafkaesque drama. 

An old friend of mine, eighty at the time, once complained to a TSA screener about removing his shoes.  The serious-minded screener replied “Well, sir, you remember Richard Reid and his attempt to hide explosives in his shoes, don’t you?”  My friend grumbled back, “Well, it’s a damn good thing for us he didn’t decide to hide them in his underwear!”

I always laughed at that anecdote, thinking that it aptly pointed out the stupidity of our response to the security threat.  It’s not funny any more.  We are dumber than I knew.

Whew….okay.  That feels better.

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