Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Extemism in the Defense of Security

In my Worldmag column today, "What We Lose When We Fly This Year," I close with this reductio ad absurdum extension of the TSA logic.

Perhaps we should hold our breath, grit our teeth, and just get through those dreadful pre-flight moments for the sake of safe skies. But why should we expect it will end with air travel? When it comes to terrorism, we can’t remain simply reactive. Shouldn’t we consider what terrorists might think of doing next? What about trains, and even commuter trains? Expect an increase in rush hour motor traffic. But an underwear bomber could target a bridge or a tunnel! We’ll need personally invasive pat-downs for everyone entering or leaving Manhattan, even carpoolers. And what about the possibility of an underwear bomber in a public school? Get ready for personal frisking of the kids before the school day begins. Oh, and principals and teachers, too. We have to be fair. By the way, is it possible for a terrorist to conceal explosives in his or her body cavities? Now there’s an interesting search.

Well, Christopher Hitchens went there already in Slate.

Consider: The decision to make us all take off our shoes was the official response to the scrofulous "shoe bomber" Richard Reid. The ban on liquids and precisely specified quantities of gel was the best we could do by way of post-facto thwarting of a London-based scheme to mix liquids in-flight and cause a mid-air detonation. The decision to inquire more closely into our undergarments was the official response to the "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. The more recent decision (this was a specifically British touch of genius) to forbid the shipping by air of any print toner weighing more than 500 grams was made after some tampered-with toner cartridges were intercepted on international cargo flights leaving Yemen a few weeks ago. (Fear not, by the way, you can't have these hard-to-find items in your carry-on bags or checked luggage, either.)

In the more recent instances, the explosive substance involved was a fairly simple one known as PETN. Now consider again: Late last August, the Saudi Arabian deputy minister of the interior, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, was injured in the city of Jeddah by a suicide bomber named Abdullah Hassan Al Aseery. The deceased assailant was the brother of Khalid Ibrahim Al Aseery, the suspected bomb-specialist of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and the man sought in connection with the underpants and toner attempts. In the Jeddah case, the lethal charge of PETN was concealed in the would-be assassin's rectum.

Perhaps you can begin to see where, as they say, I am going with this. In order for us to take them even remotely seriously, our Homeland Security officials should by now have had no alternative but to announce a series of random body-cavity searches some months ago. At least that might have had a deterrent effect and broken the long tradition of waiting for the enemy to dictate all the terms, all the time. It is a certainty that this deadly back-passage tactic will be tried. It is equally a certainty that it will find us even more defenseless than before.

Read more in "Don't Be an Ass About Airport Security."

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