Air screening, again

The attempt at taking down Northwest Flight 253 as it approached landing at Detroit – an attempt in progress before it was stopped – gives cause for some reflection on airline security. We’ve addressed this before, but some of the same wrong lessons emerge once again. So, once again.

Today’s editorial in the Oregonian, “Screen the passenger, confirm the administrator,” had some fair enough points (such as confirming the Transportation Security Administration nominee, held up presently in the Senate). And its criticism that intelligence (in this particular case at least) has failed to properly flow through the system is of course right.

The touching faith in screening technology is another matter: “The bomb ingredients that Abdulmutallab sought to detonate were hidden under his clothing, sewn into his underwear. If he had been sent through one of the advanced, see-to-the-skin screening machines, a screener would have seen them. As Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., has urged, those machines should be in place at any airport where passengers board planes bound for an American airport. Schiphole Airport in Amsterdam has some of the machines, but Abdulmutallab evidently wasn’t required to pass through any of them. Some resist the use of the machines on the grounds that they are invasive, in that they can make passengers appear to be unclothed. But, says DeFazio, a member of both the Homeland Security Committee and the Aviation subcommittee, this effect can be diluted with software that dulls the appearance of the human body, while retaining the ability to detect contraband.”

The idea that screeners can keep out anything that might be used to damage an aircraft is ludicrous. A well-prepared McGyver could probably use the electric system and other components that are natural parts of aircraft to do the job. Beyond that, the idea of endlessly chasing endlessly new hazardous substances is a formula only for driving ourselves nuts. This latest maniac, after all, went through security systems at one of the best-secured airports in the world (Amsterdam) and easily got through.

Another person who has beaten airport security, often and flagrantly and even visibly, is Jeffrey Goldberg, a writer for the Atlantic, who coined the apt phrase “security theatre” for the madness we now see in our airports. (Goldberg regularly has smuggled onto planes, at well-secured airports, all manner of hazardous materials, simply to demonstrate conclusively how easy it still is for someone determined to do it.) Interviewing Bruce Schneier, security consultant, who describes: “layers of annoying, time consuming, ineffectual, static – but automatic and scalable – security systems.”

And he says: “I want President Obama to get on national television and project indomitability. I want him to dial back the hyperbole, and remind us that our society can’t be terrorized. I want him to roll back all the fear-based post-9/11 security measures. We’d do much better by leveraging the inherent strengths of our modern democracies and the natural advantages we have over the terrorists: our adaptability and survivability, our international network of laws and law enforcement, and the freedoms and liberties that make our society so enviable. The way we live is open enough to make terrorists rare; we are observant enough to prevent most of the terrorist plots that exist, and indomitable enough to survive the even fewer terrorist plots that actually succeed. We don’t need to pretend otherwise.”

Once more to the Oregonian editorial: “The good thing about the sophisticated screening machines is that they defuse the corollary complaints about profiling.” And why is it such a good thing that grandmas from Omaha, school kids and American businessmen who fly from point to point half of the year all still have to take off their shoes, empty their pockets and . . . whatever else TSA can imagine . . . instead of focusing attention on the sliver of people who represent credible threats? Really: The people who have created these problems on our flights fit within a very narrow description. Instead, we do the “politically correct” and treat us all as potential terrorists, instead of devoting most of our attention to the relative handful that represent serious threats. Profiling in some other contexts is a bad idea born of bigotry; this kind of profile represents simple history and experience.

(El Al, the Israeli airline often described as the most secure in the world, focuses hard on profiling. There seems a useful lesson here.)

We can’t make the world perfectly safe. But we can at least quit terrorizing ourselves and tying ourselves up in knots.

A COMMENT from Anon: “I think you are being unfair to the screening machines. I think we need to test their efficacy. Let’s make them de rigueur at Presidential banquets and receptions and see how the power people adjust to their use. Then we can decide whether to share the benefits with the hoi polloi at airports. ‘…And even the president of the United States must sometimes stand naked…’”

Our response: Remember that electronic images, once obtained, are subject to easy recapture and duplication – I don’t care what sort of security is said to be built in, a hacker *will* hack if the motivation is there. Just a matter of time. So let’s see – a parade of de facto naked celebs, including the first couple, which can be reverse-engineered to produce a life-like image . . . think the motivation (financial and otherwise) would be there? Sure, by all means, try it out on them first.

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