By Patrick Smith
Jet Lagged - nytimes.com
December 28, 2007
Six years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, airport security remains
a theater of the absurd. The changes put in place following the
September 11th catastrophe have been drastic, and largely of two kinds:
those practical and effective, and those irrational, wasteful and
The first variety have taken place almost entirely behind the scenes.
Explosives scanning for checked luggage, for instance, was long overdue
and is perhaps the most welcome addition. Unfortunately, at concourse
checkpoints all across America, the madness of passenger screening
continues in plain view. It began with pat-downs and the senseless
confiscation of pointy objects. Then came the mandatory shoe removal,
followed in the summer of 2006 by the prohibition of liquids and gels.
We can only imagine what is next.
To understand what makes these measures so absurd, we first need to
revisit the morning of September 11th, and grasp exactly what it was the
19 hijackers so easily took advantage of. Conventional wisdom says the
terrorists exploited a weakness in airport security by smuggling aboard
box-cutters. What they actually exploited was a weakness in our mindset
a set of presumptions based on the decades-long track record of
In years past, a takeover meant hostage negotiations and standoffs;
crews were trained in the concept of passive resistance. All of that
changed forever the instant American Airlines Flight 11 collided with
the north tower. What weapons the 19 men possessed mattered little; the
success of their plan relied fundamentally on the element of surprise.
And in this respect, their scheme was all but guaranteed not to fail.
For several reasons particularly the awareness of passengers and crew
just the opposite is true today. Any hijacker would face a planeload of
angry and frightened people ready to fight back. Say what you want of
terrorists, they cannot afford to waste time and resources on schemes
with a high probability of failure. And thus the September 11th template
is all but useless to potential hijackers.
No matter that a deadly sharp can be fashioned from virtually anything
found on a plane, be it a broken wine bottle or a snapped-off length of
plastic, we are content wasting billions of taxpayer dollars and untold
hours of labor in a delusional attempt to thwart an attack that has
already happened, asked to queue for absurd lengths of time, subject to
embarrassing pat-downs and loss of our belongings.
The folly is much the same with respect to the liquids and gels
restrictions, introduced two summers ago following the breakup of a
London-based cabal that was planning to blow up jetliners using liquid
explosives. Allegations surrounding the conspiracy were revealed to
substantially embellished. In an August, 2006 article in the New York
Times, British officials admitted that public statements made following
the arrests were overcooked, inaccurate and unfortunate. The plots
leaders were still in the process of recruiting and radicalizing
would-be bombers. They lacked passports, airline tickets and, most
critical of all, they had been unsuccessful in actually producing liquid
explosives. Investigators later described the widely parroted report
that up to ten U.S airliners had been targeted as speculative and
Among first to express serious skepticism about the bombers readiness
was Thomas C. Greene, whose essay in The Register explored the extreme
difficulty of mixing and deploying the types of binary explosives
purportedly to be used. Green conferred with Professor Jimmie C. Oxley,
an explosives specialist who has closely studied the type of deadly
cocktail coveted by the London plotters.
The notion that deadly explosives can be cooked up in an airplane
lavatory is pure fiction, Greene told me during an interview. A handy
gimmick for action movies and shows like 24. The reality proves
disappointing: its rather awkward to do chemistry in an airplane toilet.
Nevertheless, our official protectors and deciders respond to such
notions instinctively, because theyre familiar to us: weve all seen
scenarios on television and in the cinema. This, incredibly, is why you
can no longer carry a bottle of water onto a plane.
The threat of liquid explosives does exist, but it cannot be readily
brewed from the kinds of liquids we have devoted most of our resources
to keeping away from planes. Certain benign liquids, when combined under
highly specific conditions, are indeed dangerous. However, creating
those conditions poses enormous challenges for a saboteur.
I would not hesitate to allow that liquid explosives can pose a danger,
Greene added, recalling Ramzi Yousefs 1994 detonation of a small
nitroglycerine bomb aboard Philippine Airlines Flight 434. The explosion
was a test run for the so-called Project Bojinka, an Al Qaeda scheme to
simultaneously destroy a dozen widebody airliners over the Pacific
Ocean. But the idea that confiscating someones toothpaste is going to
keep us safe is too ridiculous to entertain.
Yet thats exactly what weve been doing. The three-ounce container rule
is silly enough after all, whats to stop somebody from carrying several
small bottles each full of the same substance but consider for a moment
the hypocrisy of T.S.A.s confiscation policy. At every concourse
checkpoint youll see a bin or barrel brimming with contraband containers
taken from passengers for having exceeded the volume limit. Now, the
assumption has to be that the materials in those containers are
potentially hazardous. If not, why were they seized in the first place?
But if so, why are they dumped unceremoniously into the trash? They are
not quarantined or handed over to the bomb squad; they are simply thrown
away. The agency seems to be saying that it knows these things are
harmless. But its going to steal them anyway, and either you accept it
or you dont fly.
But of all the contradictions and self-defeating measures T.S.A. has
come up with, possibly none is more blatantly ludicrous than the policy
decreeing that pilots and flight attendants undergo the same x-ray and
metal detector screening as passengers. What makes it ludicrous is that
tens of thousands of other airport workers, from baggage loaders and
fuelers to cabin cleaners and maintenance personnel, are subject only to
occasional random screenings when they come to work.
These are individuals with full access to aircraft, inside and out. Some
are airline employees, though a high percentage are contract staff
belonging to outside companies. The fact that crew members, many of whom
are former military fliers, and all of whom endured rigorous background
checks prior to being hired, are required to take out their laptops and
surrender their hobby knives, while a caterer or cabin cleaner sidesteps
the entire process and walks onto a plane unimpeded, nullifies almost
everything our T.S.A. minders have said and done since September 11th,
2001. If there is a more ringing let-me-get-this-straight scenario
anywhere in the realm of airport security, Id like to hear it.
Im not suggesting that the rules be tightened for non-crew members so
much as relaxed for all accredited workers. Which perhaps urges us to
reconsider the entire purpose of airport security:
The truth is, regardless of how many pointy tools and shampoo bottles we
confiscate, there shall remain an unlimited number of ways to smuggle
dangerous items onto a plane. The precise shape, form and substance of
those items is irrelevant. We are not fighting materials, we are
fighting the imagination and cleverness of the would-be saboteur.
Thus, what most people fail to grasp is that the nuts and bolts of
keeping terrorists away from planes is not really the job of airport
security at all. Rather, its the job of government agencies and law
enforcement. Its not very glamorous, but the grunt work of hunting down
terrorists takes place far off stage, relying on the diligent work of
cops, spies and intelligence officers. Air crimes need to be stopped at
the planning stages. By the time a terrorist gets to the airport,
chances are its too late.
In the end, Im not sure which is more troubling, the inanity of the
existing regulations, or the average Americans acceptance of them and
willingness to be humiliated. These wasteful and tedious protocols have
solidified into what appears to be indefinite policy, with little or no
opposition. There ought to be a tide of protest rising up against this
mania. Where is it? At its loudest, the voice of the traveling public is
one of grumbled resignation. The op-ed pages are silent, the pundits
have nothing meaningful to say.
The airlines, for their part, are in something of a bind. The
willingness of our carriers to allow flying to become an increasingly
unpleasant experience suggests a business sense of masochistic
capitulation. On the other hand, imagine the outrage among security
zealots should airlines be caught lobbying for what is perceived to be a
dangerous abrogation of security and responsibility even if its not.
Carriers caught plenty of flack, almost all of it unfair, in the
aftermath of September 11th. Understandably, they no longer want that
As for Americans themselves, I suppose that its less than realistic to
expect street protests or airport sit-ins from citizen fliers, and maybe
we shouldnt expect too much from a press and media that have had no
trouble letting countless other injustices slip to the wayside. And
rather than rethink our policies, the best weve come up with is a way to
skirt them for a fee, naturally via schemes like Registered Traveler.
Americans can now pay to have their personal information put on file
just to avoid the hassle of airport security. As cynical as George
Orwell ever was, I doubt he imagined the idea of citizens offering up
money for their own subjugation.
How we got to this point is an interesting study in reactionary
politics, fear-mongering and a disconcerting willingness of the American
public to accept almost anything in the name of security. Conned and
frightened, our nation demands not actual security, but security
spectacle. And although a reasonable percentage of passengers, along
with most security experts, would concur such theater serves no useful
purpose, there has been surprisingly little outrage. In that regard,
maybe weve gotten exactly the system we deserve.
Patrick Smith, a commercial airline pilot, is the author of Salon.coms
weekly Ask the Pilot air travel column; his book of the same name was
published in 2004. He lives near Boston.
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