Wretchard of the Belmont Club has always been one of my favorite “big thinkers.” And he has a discussion on two different models in airport security that is well worth the read.
The model we in the United States use is to attempt to control what gets on the plane. The theory is that if we detect the terrorists’ weapons, we not only keep the weapons off the plane, but we can identify and capture the terrorists before they can strike.
The alternate model is to control who gets on the plane. This is the Israeli model — they have found ways in which terrorists give themselves away to skilled questioners and observers, and their screeners are exceptionally competent at these arts.
Since 9/11 and the ensuing US emphasis on airplane security, we’ve had the Shoe Bomber, the Underwear Bomber, the Toner Bombs, and several other threats were addressed before an incident could occur (the limits on liquids in carry-on baggage, for one). In the three specific cases, the responses were reactive — the plots were attempted, but failed thanks to the incompetence of the bombers. They were not stopped or even detected by security measures.
Meanwhile, Israel has gone over 40 years without an incident on an airliner.
This should come as no suprise. With two notable exceptions, every single terrorist attack on an airliner has had one common element: the presence of a terrorist on the plane. The toner plot used cargo shipping, and on Pan Am 103 the bomber concealed the bomb in the baggage of his unknowing and pregnant girlfriend. In that latter case, measures are now in place to catch that — increased screening of electronics, the repeated “anyone else touch your baggage?” questions, and the like.
The weapons the terrorists use are constantly changing. Guns fell out of fashion in the 1970’s. The 9/11 hijackers used box cutters and utility knives — pretty much standard, everyday tools. So they were banned. Next, a really dumb guy packed his shoes with explosives. So we now look at shoes. The bad guys planned to use small amounts of liquids to mix up explosives, so now we can’t take small amounts of shampoo and other liquids into the airplane with us. Another non-rocket-scientist stitched a bomb into his underwear, but only managed to geld himself — so now we all get our junk grabbed and our nether regions bombarded with radiation.
In brief, the threat is constantly evolving, so our defenses must as well.
But as noted, the weapons change, but the attackers don’t. That is the one constant element, the one unchanging factor, the one thing we need to detect even more than the latest weapons.
It’s the old truism about gun control laws writ large: guns don’t kill people, people kill people. A gun, in and of itself, is harmless. It will not crawl around and shoot someone at random. Conversely, if someone is dead set on killing another and is denied a gun, they will find some other way to carry out their plan.
Let’s take it further. The mere presence of a knife or a gun on an airplane is, in and of itself, not a danger to the passengers or the plane itself. Yeah, accidents might happen, but by and large that’s true. It takes someone with the skill and will to use those weapons to make them a threat.
We need to maintain our efforts on the physical security (but not quite to the “turn your head and cough” level), but we need to take off our ideological blinders and start looking at the people we let on to the planes. Only by profiling (a legitimate and valuable tool that we have let be slurred by people who conflate psychological and behavioral profiling with “racial profiling,” and get hysterical at the mention of the p-word) can we start looking at the real threat.
Under our current system, the best we can hope for is to allow unarmed terrorists on to the plane. And another term for “unarmed terrorist” is “a terrorist either with a weapon we haven’t detected, or looking for an improvised weapon on board.”
The most deadly weapon in the terrorist’s arsenal is his mind. That is precisely the weapon we scrupulously avoid looking for, and the first one the Israelis look for.
We’ve failed countless times, leading to the deaths of thousands and the needless inconveniencing and harassment of millions. They’ve never had a major failure.
We need to look at what’s working. And what hasn’t.