Lex Luthor is incredibly evil, and incredibly powerful. He’s a technological genius, and from his research he created an astonishing pile of wealth. He’s so rich, and so powerful, that he can divert resources from his research labs to produce weapons with which to wage war on Superman. Luthor’s labs produce technologies beyond that available to militaries, technology that makes weapons capable of destroying or disabling the unstoppable, unkillable man. Absent superpowers, nothing short of Luthor’s research labs and financial power could conceivably match an entity like Superman.
Many people look at the world of counterterrorism and seem to think that al Qaeda is somehow like Luthor. But they aren’t. Their technological capacity is probably far less than yours or mine, and surely less than that of the US government. Their knowledge of aviation security is probably less than frequent business travelers. Yet every time they shove some explosives in their underwear, we freak out.
9/11 was an aberration. It never made sense that the cockpit door was so weak, and so rarely locked. And absent a history of suicidal airline attacks, passengers early in the day were more complacent about a hijacking than they were even before the fourth plane crashed that day. Passengers and flight attendants are warier now, and the cockpit door is locked and reinforced. 9/11 can’t happen again, not even if passengers could bring scissors and nailclippers and even pocket knives on board.
So al Qaeda adapted. They tried shoe bombs, and underpants bombs, and now package bombs. Those attacks originated outside the US, not from domestic airports, because we’re doing a better job detecting and disrupting domestic terrorist cells. They take the path of least resistance. They might like to kill Superman, but they can’t.
This is why Bruce Schneier and others refer to most of the new screenings and security efforts around airports “security theater.” Routine screenings, the sorts of things that existed before 9/11, were enough to force al Qaeda to use unfeasible and unsuccessful techniques like the attempted shoe bomb and the attempted underpants bomb. Now they’ve moved on to package bombs, exploiting the fact that only a small fraction of air cargo is screened.
But even though we already have the security to beat underwear bombs, TSA has rolled out their pornoscanners and “gate grope” protocols. All this despite the fact that they wouldn’t have detected the underpants bomb anyway. The searches are invasive, insulting, and according to people who know searches, they’re not even good searches, nor carried out by well-trained screeners. And the TSA screeners don’t want to do them. Plus, lots of people who ought to be screened can simply skip the checkpoints.
A TSA public affairs manager got it inadvertently right, in trying to explain why TSA doesn’t screen the screeners: “We have a finite amount of resources and we allocate those where we think the risk is greatest. It’s based on intelligence; it’s based on knowledge of our people and our processes.”
The problem is that it isn’t. Kevin Drum isn’t a threat to aviation, nor am I. Most TSA screeners will never see a real terrorist, and what contraband they catch will be entirely innocuous (corkscrews, nail files, even the occasional gun placed in the wrong luggage, but not intended to do harm). If I trusted that the folks singled out for screening actually represented a threat to me and to other passengers, I wouldn’t mind the occasional false positive that inconvenienced me. But in all my travels, averaging a flight or two per month over the last few years, I have consistently been unimpressed. Screeners have gotten great at catching water bottles, but whether they look twice at the silverware in my bag seems entirely arbitrary.
I point this all out because people may not understand why folks are so worked up about the searches. Some folks are treating the backlash as something new, but it isn’t. Lots of us have objected for years, objected to the useless war on liquids, the annoyance of taking our shoes off at screenings, the meaningless checking of IDs. In that vein, Kevin Drum offers an anti-rant in response to TSA critics. He recites the various efforts by TSA. Even if most of the actions are “stupid,” in his words, “honestly, most of what they do is pretty easy to understand: they’re trying to make it so hard to get weapons and explosives on board airplanes that no one bothers trying.” The problem, as I argued above, is that most of the new stuff they’re doing simply doesn’t make it measurably harder to get dangerous things onto airplanes.
More importantly, the risk of terrorism is minimal. Nate Silver points out that about 1 in 25 million air travelers has been killed by terrorism in the last decade. That’s about 50 times less than the risk of being hit by lightning in any given year. A physicist at Arizona State University notes that some pornoscanners use ionizing radiation, and the added radiation dose probably raises a traveler’s risk of getting cancer by about 1 in 30 million. Most people, myself included, have rightly dismissed this latter risk as trivial, so small as to be unworthy of consideration. Yet people are willing to be groped or virtually strip searched in order to reduce that latter risk even marginally. There’s a disconnect here.
Kevin Drum understands this issue, but thinks there’s an important difference between the cancer risk and the terrorism risk:
Maybe you think that even if TSA’s procedures are slightly useful, they aren’t useful enough to justify all the intrusion. Instead, we should just accept the risk of an occasional plane falling out of the sky. Think again: if a plane comes down, you can just kiss your civil liberties goodbye. Today’s TSA procedures will seem positively genial compared to what takes their place with the full and eager support of the American public. Given that reality, if you’re really worried about civil liberties you should welcome nearly anything legal that protects air travel from explosives, even the things that are really annoying and only modestly useful.
This is an important argument. But pushback like we’re seeing now helps set a tone for how we react next time al Qaeda makes a successful attack. We have to have multiple layers of response to terrorism. The first line has to be a societal willingness to watch for threats, and to react appropriately to dangerous behavior. We see that in passengers and flight attendants who stopped the shoe bomb and underwear bomb. The second layer is official security systems, whether it’s hardened barriers around cockpits or improved intelligence-gathering and analysis. The third layer comes after an attack: how do we as a society respond to a successful attack?
After 9/11, we as a nation went batshit insane. We’ll get attacked again. However good our security is, we aren’t Superman, we aren’t invulnerable, and al Qaeda will find a way to hurt us. But they aren’t Lex Luthor, either. They won’t go after the very hardest targets, they’ll go where security is weakest. And we can beat them. If the general public doesn’t spot something odd, and if intelligence and security teams fail to disrupt a planned attack, we can work towards making a society resilient to the occasional successful terrorist attack. But freaking out, allowing ourselves to be groped in public by untrained rent-a-cops, isn’t the answer. It just stokes the fears which will erupt after an attack, bringing the absurdity Drum fears.
No matter what we do, there will be a successful attack. The way to preserve civil liberties is not to surrender those freedoms to prevent an attack. We need to have a serious discussion about risk, so that people treat the risk of terrorism the way they treat the risk of cancer. We accept that flying takes us into the thinner parts of the atmosphere, exposing us to more cosmic rays, and thus raising our cancer risk. But it’s worth it to see our family, to meet our business partners, or to take a relaxing vacation. The risk is small, so we set them aside. We can do that with terrorism, too.