Terrorists and the sad state of security

As is the norm, in the aftermath of the terrorist attempt to blow up Northwest Flight 253 flying into Detroit on Christmas  day, those who would save us from ourselves proclaimed a new set of rules for passengers flying in or into the US.

Also, as is the norm, the new security rules did not make any of those passengers any safer while they were in the air (or anywhere else).

The rule (again, as is the norm) just made what has become a miserable traveling experience even more miserable for those so unfortunate to be flying the past few days.

In a bit of brilliant analysis these security experts put into place a number of restrictions as their solution to avoiding any further attacks on the flying public.

  • Because the perpetrator got up from his seat in the last hour of the flight and went to the washroom, all passengers were relegated to their seats for the last hour of their flight.
  • Because the perpetrator covered his lap with a blanket in order to hide his attempt to activate the explosive he had strapped to his thigh, in the last hour of the flight no passenger could have a blanket or a pillow at their seat. (In fact on some flights passengers were told to keep their hands in full view).
  • They initially banned all carry-on luggage with only a few exceptions, such as computers, cameras, medication and small purses for example. (They seem to have now moved back to one carry-on bag but I heard reported today that they would not allow carry-on luggage with wheels. I suppose that somehow the wheels on a piece of luggage presents a clear and present danger to passenger safety).
  • Then, to add insult to injury, some flights told passengers that they could not access their carry-on material during the last hour in the air – even magazines to read.

None of these precautions – if you can call them that – have anything to do with safety. In fact they are simply put into place as feel-good measures to make the public think that they are in fact doing something and to direct the attention away from the real issue,which is the fact that the security procedures that they currently have in place are a failure.

Because, in fact, security was already screwed when this terrorist made it on to the plane.

This was a guy who was already on the watch-list, whose father had contacted authorities with concerns about his son, and was able to board, apparently without a passport. But while you and I can’t get through airport security with a bottle of water, this turkey, who should have merited some extra-special consideration, breezed through with an explosive device strapped to his crotch.

Once you have let a terrorist on the plane, with a bomb ready to go, all of the stupid rules and regulations that the bureaucrats put in place to make us think they are taking security seriously are simply for show.

Christopher Hitchens puts it in historical perspective and also notes:

Why do we fail to detect or defeat the guilty, and why do we do so well at collective punishment of the innocent? The answer to the first question is: Because we can’t—or won’t. The answer to the second question is: Because we can. The fault here is not just with our endlessly incompetent security services, who give the benefit of the doubt to people who should have been arrested long ago or at least had their visas and travel rights revoked. It is also with a public opinion that sheepishly bleats to be made to “feel safe.” The demand to satisfy that sad illusion can be met with relative ease if you pay enough people to stand around and stare significantly at the citizens’ toothpaste. My impression as a frequent traveler is that intelligent Americans fail to protest at this inanity in case it is they who attract attention and end up on a no-fly list instead. Perfect.

That is the sorry state of government action and not only as it applies to airport security.

In addition, not only were many of the new rules ridiculous, it was also confusing to everyone.

You are now free to move about the cabin. Or not.

After a two-day security clampdown prompted by a thwarted attempt to bomb a jetliner, some airline officials told The Associated Press that the in-flight restrictions had been eased. And it was now up to captains on each flight to decide whether passengers can have blankets and other items on their laps or can move around during the final phase of flight.

Confused? So were scores of passengers who flew Monday on one of the busiest travel days of the year. On some flights, passengers were told to keep their hands visible and not to listen to iPods. Even babies were frisked. But on other planes, security appeared no tighter than usual.

The Transportation Security Administration did little to explain the rules. And that inconsistency might well have been deliberate: What’s confusing to passengers is also confusing to potential terrorists.

“It keeps them guessing,” transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman said.


If the objective was to befuddle, then on Monday it was mission accomplished.

On one Air Canada flight from Toronto to New York’s LaGuardia Airport, crew members told passengers before departure that they were not allowed to use any electronic devices – even iPods – and would not be able to access their personal belongings during the one-hour flight.

The questions came as President Obama ordered a review of air-safety regulations. TSA spokeswoman Sterling Payne declined to offer details other than to say the agency would “continually review and update these measures to ensure the highest level of security.”

An hour before a US Air flight from Manchester, England, to Philadelphia landed, flight attendants removed passengers’ blankets and told them to keep their “hands visible,” said passenger Walt Swanson of Cumbria, England.

Even bathroom visits were affected on some flights.

On Continental Flight 1788 from Cancun, Mexico, to Newark, three airport security agents frisked everyone at the gate, including babies, prompting one to scream loudly in protest. On the plane, crew announced that the toilets would be shut down the last hour of the flight and passengers would not be able eat, drink, or use electronic devices.

The warning that the bathrooms would be shut down led to lines 10 people deep at each lavatory. A demand by one attendant that no could read anything either elicited gasps of disbelief and howls of laughter.

And here’s a dandy.

One of the Transportation Security Administration restrictions that most annoyed the airlines was an order to shut off in-flight entertainment systems on international flights. Airlines objected, and on Sunday night, the TSA apparently relented and left it to the discretion of airline crews to decide whether to turn off the systems.

I wonder who the hell thought up that key security measure?

Some further comments.

Here’s what’s not being addressed during all of this:

• On U.S. domestic flights, while the TSA is still strip-searching nuns looking for tweezers, a majority of the cargo carried in the very bellies of those flights is not inspected.

• Most technology being used at airport security screening checkpoints is not able to recognize PETN or other chemical explosives. And let us not forget that a syringe is not a prohibited item.

And the TSA is fighting this by prohibiting us from having a blanket, book or pillow during the last hour of our flight — all because one person tried — unsuccessfully — to blow up a plane and he used a blanket during the last hour of HIS flight to try to conceal his poor attempt at detonating a chemical device?

This has nothing to do with what we do on the plane. It all has to do with how we are supposed to clear security ON THE GROUND before we ever get on the plane!

The REAL key here is that either you clear through security and the security systems are effective, or they’re not. Denying me an extra carry-on bag, or a book, or a blanket, or not allowing me to leave my seat during the last hour of flight does little to camouflage the weakness of current airport security systems on the ground.

And so, once again, as well-intentioned as these new rules may be, they are reactive in nature, have no basis in common sense, and are punishing us in the air for the failure of security agencies on the ground. Thousands upon thousands of passengers will be delayed and / or inconvenienced, and the actual level of security will essentially remain the same, at best.

And some travel advice.

And in the meantime, my advice: Get to the airport two- to-three hours early for domestic fights, four hours early for international flights and, if at all possible, on domestic flights, do what I do — courier your bags ahead of time. I use FedEx, but there are 16 other services, including UPS, that can do this for you. In the past, I’ve saved two-and–a-half hours PER FLIGHT by not checking bags. Now, I’ll probably save even more time.

Things will gradually work back to normal, but the message is clear. No-one learned anything of any real value from 911.

There is the technology out there to make a significant improvement to airport security. Somebody just has to make it happen. But judging from this latest experience, it probably won’t be the hacks that are currently running the show.


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One Response to “Terrorists and the sad state of security”

  1. Gary Mauser Says:

    The failure is due to the govt being unwilling to profile terrorists.

    Jerry Pournelle refers to this guy as the ‘johnson bomber’ and asks what is Homeland Security’s goal?

    “What is it we are trying to optimize in air travel safety procedures? Roberta suggests it is minimizing bad headlines from things that happen on Obama’s watch. I expect that’s right, and that it’s not a lot changed from Bush’s time; but is that the criterion the rest of us would choose?

    Meanwhile, Farouk has burned off his johnson and wins a Darwin award; what does al Qaeda get for that sacrifice? What will it mean for the rest of us?”

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