Friday, August 11, 2006

Airport Security 

Patrick Smith, the best writer in America on issues of airplanes and airports, tells us why the new restrictions on carry-on items won't make us a lick safer. There was a nearly identical plot uncovered in the mid-90s, and we stopped that one without going crazy over shampoo bottles. But now authorities react as if this is a new idea:

Based on what we know thus far, government investigators ought to be commended for unraveling this deadly scheme in time. Predictably and tragically, however, airports have been thrown into chaos not seen since the days just after Sept. 11. European and American security agencies have slammed down a sudden gantlet of restrictions resulting in massive delays and grave inconvenience for millions of passengers. An already devastated airline industry, along with countless of its customers, are once again going to suffer mightily.

There is no reason it has to be this way -- though few of us who've been writing about airport security issues over the past few years are terribly surprised. Half a decade after Sept. 11, having spent billions to upgrade air security, we're still needlessly obsessed with hobby knives and silverware, trying to thwart an attack that already happened and is all but certain never to happen again.

Is it any wonder that the specter of liquid explosives, the possibilities of which have been known to authorities for many years, should inspire a whole new round of reactionary panic and waste? It's too early, maybe, to be so cynical, but some of us have been waiting for the other shoe to drop, as it were, ever since Richard Reid's would-be sneaker bomb commenced the silly and apparently never-to-end X-raying of footwear at airports across America. I presume the new security paradigm will call for the permanent banning of toothpaste, shampoo and drinking water.

What we need to get through our terror-addled heads is this: It has been, and it will always be, relatively easy to smuggle a potentially deadly weapon onto an aircraft.

The easily concealable components of the Bojinka microbombs demonstrate the futility of trying to root out every possible terror tool. Knives can be improvised from almost anything. The same for bombs, flammable materials, and other instruments of destruction, large or small.

More than once in this magazine I've discussed the forgotten lessons of Bojinka. In laying out other fiendish scenarios, I once raised the possibility of terrorists sewing explosives into the living bodies of pets, which could then be shipped in a plane's cargo hold. The point was never to be gruesome but, rather, to illustrate the limitless tools saboteurs will always have at their disposal.

Ultimately, protecting commercial aircraft from terrorism is not the job of airport security, it's a job for police departments, federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The apparent plot at Heathrow Airport was not unraveled by the keen eye of a concourse screener; it was unraveled through careful investigation behind the scenes. By the time any attacker makes it to the metal detector, chances are it's already too late. There are too many ways to outwit that final line of defense.

No matter, here we go initiating yet another absurd crackdown to the detriment of millions of innocent travelers. Just as confiscating corkscrews didn't make us safer after Sept. 11, so banning liquids isn't going to make us safer now. All the while, the true weapon of mass destruction is the imagination and resilience of those who wish to harm us -- a fact we continue to ignore at our own peril.

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