I’ll give the UK and US governments the benefit of the doubt for the sake of argument (even though they are both world class liars) and assume the alleged hair-gel terror plot is real. The response to it is still monumentally stupid. So what do I know about hair gel? Nothing. I don’t use it.
But I vaguely recall a Kurt Vonnegut novel whose plot went something like this (I might be making some of this up; I have no access to library materials where I am at the moment). A childless man, living in a suburb where everyone had families felt left out so he decided to have some of his own. But he had no partner. So he devised an alternative scheme. He scraped some skin cells into a vat of chicken soup and exposed it to cosmic rays. This produced clones of himself. When others saw how successful this was they did the same, resulting in a population problem. The government then stepped in. Their solution: make possession of chicken soup by unmarried men illegal.
Back to hair gel. Here’s what a security expert says about the monumentally stupid response of the Bush administration:
Hours-long waits in the security line. Ridiculous prohibitions on what you can carry onboard. Last week’s foiling of a major terrorist plot and the subsequent airport security graphically illustrates the difference between effective security and security theater.
None of the airplane security measures implemented because of 9/11 — no-fly lists, secondary screening, prohibitions against pocket knives and corkscrews — had anything to do with last week’s arrests. And they wouldn’t have prevented the planned attacks, had the terrorists not been arrested. A national ID card wouldn’t have made a difference, either. (Schneier on Security)
As Schneier and others note, the real defense for this alleged plot was the usual one: traditional police work: following leads, intercepting communications, seeing who was in communication with whom. The alleged plotters had been under surveillance for a considerable time and got as far as they did — supposedly almost to the point of a dry run — because they were allowed to get that far. Now we get the inevitable response: ban hair gels. So you now can bring scissors and small knives on the plane but you can’t bring Grecian Formula 44 — or any liquid — on the plane. As Cosmic Variance points out, the federal government has just banned an entire state of matter!
Schneier makes an important point:
Banning box cutters since 9/11, or taking off our shoes since Richard Reid, has not made us any safer. And a long-term prohibition against liquid carry-ons won’t make us safer, either. It’s not just that there are ways around the rules, it’s that focusing on tactics is a losing proposition.
It’s easy to defend against what the terrorists planned last time, but it’s shortsighted. If we spend billions fielding liquid-analysis machines in airports and the terrorists use solid explosives, we’ve wasted our money. If they target shopping malls, we’ve wasted our money. Focusing on tactics simply forces the terrorists to make a minor modification in their plans. There are too many targets — stadiums, schools, theaters, churches, the long line of densely packed people before airport security — and too many ways to kill people.
Security measures that require us to guess correctly don’t work, because invariably we will guess wrong. It’s not security, it’s security theater: measures designed to make us feel safer but not actually safer.
The Bushies are busy trying to paint sane people like Ned Lamont, who want an expeditious exit from Iraq, as friends of al-Qaeda. On the contrary it’s the Bush administration who is al-Qaeda’s most faithful and consistent ally:
Osama Bin Laden got everything on his Christmas list after 9/11 — US out of Saudi Arabia; the greatest military in the world over-extended, pinned down and distracted; the greatest proponent of democracy suddenly alienated from its allies; a US culture verily eager to destroy freedoms that little scumfuck could never even dream to touch himself — I would like to deny him the last little check on the clipboard, i.e. constant terror. I panic, they win. To coin a phrase, Osama Bin Laden can suck my insouciance. (Kung Fu Monkey)
As Schneier points out, we can’t keep weapons out of prisons. You think we can keep them off of planes? Outsmarting security measures for airplanes isn’t hard. And planes are just a small fraction of targets.
Without being able to stipulate a workable solution — and there may not be one — you can at least spot ones that don’t work, and worse, are counterproductiive.
Don’t work, that is, unless your end is not security, but security theater. In this case the Theater of the Absurd.