Monday, December 28, 2009

Flight 253 aftermath

Because airport security is an endless frustration of mine, I can't help but comment on the undie-bomber/jockstrap jihadist. Some observations:
  • The U.S. has spent billions of dollars on airport security and inconvenienced million of travellers. Al Qaeda has attempted to attack these systems via boxcutter knives, explosives hidden in shoes and explosives hidden in underwear. Who is getting the most bang for the buck?
  • The government is constantly fighting the last battle. Knives were banned after 9/11. Shoes were scanned after Richard Reid's abortive attempt. A whole slew of measures are now being put into effect.
  • What is the point of these latest measures? Would any of them have stopped the last attack? Are we willing to search inside people's underwear?
  • You're probably far better off placing your safety in the hands of your fellow passengers than TSA employees.
  • What has been gained through federalization of airport security? Are we safer? Let's recall that a 2005 GAO study found private airport security workers to perform better than their federal counterparts.
  • I frankly don't care about President Obama's low profile in the aftermath of the recent attack. He isn't a national father figure and we aren't a bunch of helpless children. I hope.
  • As for DHS Secretary Napolitano, the very nature of her post pretty well assures she can't be completely honest, for such honesty would basically entail admitting -- as Roger Pilon notes -- that the system worked about as well as could be expected. Was anyone really surprised a terrorist was able to beat security measures?
  • Remind me again why we have a Department of Homeland Security?
OK, so what should we do? Frankly, I think we need to start realizing no foolproof security measures exist which can prevent terrorist attacks. Whatever barrier is put in place, someone will figure out a way to beat it. Standing in line in airport security lines I can recall at least one or two instances I was able to sneak a small blade on board despite its prohibition at the time. Someone who dedicates their life to thinking of ways to beat airport security will probably meet with a fair amount of success.

To the extent such attacks can be prevented, it is through heightened awareness among passengers themselves. Who is engaging in suspicious behavior? Why is that guy trying to light his shoes on fire? Why is that other guy's underwear smoldering?

As for formal security measures, they should be left up to the airlines themselves, who -- given that their own personnel and planes are at stake -- have a fair amount of self-interest in preventing attacks. Some airlines may continue with a conventional approach. Some may require supervised bathroom breaks while others let passengers roam about freely. Others may arm their pilots and train their stewardesses in karate. Each one will have different costs and different levels of protection. Passengers can perform a cost-benefit analysis and decide which airline provides the level of security they feel most comfortable with.

The reality is that danger exists everywhere in the world. You can be a victim just walking down the street, despite the best efforts of the police. We face risks every day in our normal activities and constantly make cost-benefit decisions about our safety. Driving a car or skiing down a mountain can result in death. So can flying on a plane. That's simply the way it is and a reality we need to acknowledge.

No comments: