The reaction of the TSA — the umbrella organization formed after 9/11 to regulate airline security in the US — to the recent terrorist attempt has been along expected lines. More lines, more meaningless regulations, more stifling security measures. When Richard Reid had the bright idea a few years ago to hide explosives in his shoe, the TSA reacted by asking everyone to take off their shoes henceforth for the security check. Considering that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab strapped the explosives onto his underwear, we ought to be thankful that the TSA’s imagination has so far been..um…restricted. I mean, sure, it has issued an order that all babies be put into overhead luggage bins during the last hour of the flight, but consider the much more sinister possibilities.
My thoughts on this issue can be summed up in one sentence: Umar Farouk failed, but we are doing our best to make sure his goal succeeds.
Stephen Bainbridge puts it well:
Has TSA ever considered the possibility that maybe the terrorists aren’t really interested in blowing up a plane. Maybe the terrorists figure they win everytime we in the West spend millions of man-hours being hassled, inconvenienced, and generally put upon by a myriad of stupid security measures.
Now Professor Bainbridge may be ascribing more subtlety to the terrorists’ modus operandi than they probably possess, but it is worthwhile to pause and think about what he is saying. A free society, by its very nature, offers many targets for terrorists. It is impossible to shut them all down. Nor is terrorism as transcendent a presence as some might want to believe. With smart, mostly non-intrusive measures, the threat can be further reduced. Sure, there will be attacks from time to time, just as there are crimes every day, but the real damage from these attacks are not caused by the incidents themselves, but by our terrorized reaction to them. It is when we fearfully overreach and put into place crippling regulations that cost us time, money and curtail our civil liberties, that the real harm occurs. As security expert Bruce Schneier puts it:
A terrorist attack cannot possibly destroy a country’s way of life; it’s only our reaction to that attack that can do that kind of damage. The more we undermine our own laws, the more we convert our buildings into fortresses, the more we reduce the freedoms and liberties at the foundation of our societies, the more we’re doing the terrorists’ job for them.
At some point, we need to do a cost benefit analysis: how much hassle, fear and security clampdown is too much? Is it worth going through so much TSA tyranny, much of it a charade, and give up so much of our convenience, liberty and well-being in an attempt to make our existence slightly more secure against terrorist attacks?
Update: Nate Silver crunches the numbers and concludes that your chances of being on a given flight departure which is the subject of a terrorist incident have been 1 in 10,408,947 over the past decade. So you could take 20 flights a year and still be less likely to be attacked than you are to die of a lightning strike.
Update 2: This is hilarious:
Anyway, I have a better idea. Let’s ban all clothing from all flights. Both the shoe bomber and Abdulmutallab used clothing — not Wi-Fi and not live TV — to make their failed attempts. In addition to taking away the possibility of hiding incendiary devices, a total ban on all clothes will also have the following positive results:
1. Terrorists will have a further disincentive from targeting flights, because religious extremists tend to be squeamish about naked people.
2. It would reduce greenhouse gas emissions because shy people wouldn’t fly, thus reducing the number of flights overall.
3. I don’t know why, but I think people would be more courteous. Talk about friendly skies!
Of course, I’m not serious about the clothing ban. But it makes a lot more sense than the TSA’s new ban on Wi-Fi and in-flight TV.