The more I study everyday occurrences in the U.S., the more they seem like Kabuki theatre come to life. (And I'm not even talking about the continuing adventures of K-Fed and Britney.) Basic common sense seems to be missing at every turn. Certainly our personal safety is vital, and as such, is something to which every American naturally applies some thought, no? But for the wonders of airport security, traveling to San Jose, or anyplace else for that matter, might actually be pleasant.
Airport Security = Theatre of the Absurd Come to Life
When individual pre-flight body searches at the airports became routine, few raised the issue that such searches were in conflict with the 4th Amendment. The text of the amendment in question is:
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
As best I can deduce from that, a lawful search requires probable cause as a prerequisite — yet in the case of air travel, the mere action of planning to fly causes airport security victims — otherwise known as passengers — to lose one of the most cherished protections given in the Constitution.
If these searches were other than farcical, maybe I could accept them anyway. Maybe. But after every supposed terrorist plot is foiled, we are subjected to yet another half-baked infringement in the name of safety. The fact that many, if not most, of the latest "foiled terrorist plots" are hatched by people with barely the skills to find an airport on the map is apparently beside the point.
The latest craze — the ban on gels and liquids (unless they are less than 3 ounces and sealed in a zip-lock bag) — is a perfect example of all this. The whole thing supposedly stems from a foiled plot in the U.K. However, careful (or frankly, not so careful) analysis of the information shows not only that banning gels on planes doesn't preclude this kind of attack. It also shows that this kind of attack simply cannot be completed, at least not by people carrying the ingredients in their toilet kits. It takes several different components to create the TATP. It takes 12 to 36 hours to cure the raw ingredients. Even if a prospective terrorist could get all the ingredients he needed on-board the plane, the fumes would likely either be readily apparent or cause him to pass out, or both. Even if he didn't get caught or pass out, the resulting mixture couldn't even blow up a toilet bowl, much less down an aircraft. So why are we traveling the globe sans toothpaste? Darned if I know. But still, we submit to this lunacy. (Okay, I give up. What do the zip-lock bags protect us from?)
Even assuming, for just a moment, that previously banned, but now "legal" fingernail clippers could ever have been used to hijack a plane, the current version of airport security would still be worthless. (The fact that almost anyone with a pulse can even now successfully get a deadlier weapon than a pair of nail clippers on a plane is just an example of the lunacy.)
A primary problem is that airport treats what is a symptom while never addressing any root causes. Simply put, for increased security to preclude subsequent attacks, ineffective security must have led in part to the previous attacks. Direct causality has to exist between security and terrorism for increased security to result in decreased terrorism. But people who obeyed the existing rules carried out those attacks. Their weapons were not hidden, and their identification was not invalid. Thus, bending me over and checking me very thoroughly for weapons is unlikely to help. Worse, looking at the 9/11 attacks, the simplest logical analysis yields another firm conclusion: the methodology used to take over those planes on that day will never work again anyway.
This was true immediately after 9/11. In fact, the methodology stopped working during the attacks, as evidenced by the fact that the forth plane did not reach its ostensible destination. (Conspiracy Theory Caveat: Ironically, this conclusion is valid only if the official reports are completely true. If other intrigue were afoot then no analysis would yield good results. More on that in the second essay in this series.)
Hijacking a plane nowadays with a weapon of almost any kind is an errand for a person who wants to get beat up and not achieve his goal. I won't claim to know much about Islam, but I’d bet you can't get your 60 virgins if your mini-jihad gets foiled because you got your rear-end kicked by some housewife from Kansas. (Let's not even debate the mythology surrounding this "get some virgins" foolishness.)
Attempting to preclude people from carrying the kind of weapon used in those attacks aboard a plane provides no benefit. Asking for picture I.D. provides no safeguard against a determined terrorist. Asking those insipid "four questions" provides no benefit. Prospective terrorists know this. The TSA, or more accurately, DHS, has to know this. So the steps taken provide only the "feel safer" benefit. They are just for show.
Somewhere in the offices of DHS right now, execs are gathered around a conference table, doing shots of Jack, laughing: "Hey Bill, let’s make them take off their shoes!" "That's too funny!" "Hey, why not dial up the metal detector to catch underwire bras?" "Wow, I wish I could film that scene!" "Hey, I've got one. Let's ask them if they packed their own bag or let some unknown person pack it for them. Terrorists never pack their own bags!" "Ooooh, good one!" It's a veritable laugh riot.
And just to be very clear, when I assert that terrorists around the globe know that a similar plan to that implemented on 9/11 will never work again, I am not talking about the really smart terrorists. A terrorist with only the mental capacity to avoid soiling himself occasionally during a typical day could have reached this conclusion. If such a person could actually get to the airport on time, he would have reached the upper limit of his capability.
Airport security. Yeah?
Good gawd y'all!
What is it good for?
Absolutely nothing! Say it again!
If you don't remember that song, don't fret. You'll get a live-action demo during your next trip. There you'll be, shoes off, clothing loose, single-shot toothpaste in a zip-lock bag, watching a 70+ year-old grandmother being felt up by some person barely qualified to provide security at a bowling alley.
With all due respect to the entertainment value of such a scene, you can't really blame me for feeling a little skeptical about the effectiveness of this "first line of defense" in stopping global terrorism in its tracks.
Wilt Alston [send him mail] lives in Rochester, NY, with his wife and three children. When he's not training for a marathon or furthering his part-time study of libertarian philosophy, he works as a principal research scientist in transportation safety, focusing primarily on the safety of subway and freight train control systems.