A week after the attempted Christmas Day bombing of a Northwest Airlines fight, two polar-opposite American columnists — one left, one right — have come to nearly identical conclusions about the essential danger posed by airline security restrictions.
From the right, a New Year’s Day column by the New York Times’s David Brooks decried a citizenry that “expect[s] perfection from government and then throw[s] temper tantrums when it is not achieved.”
[T]he Transportation Security Administration has to be seen doing something, so it added another layer to its stage play, “Security Theater” — more baggage regulations, more in-flight restrictions.
At some point, it’s worth pointing out that it wasn’t the centralized system that stopped terrorism in this instance. As with the shoe bomber, as with the plane that went down in Shanksville, Pa., it was decentralized citizen action. The plot was foiled by nonexpert civilians who had the advantage of the concrete information right in front of them — and the spirit to take the initiative.
For better or worse, over the past 50 years we have concentrated authority in centralized agencies and reduced the role of decentralized citizen action. We’ve done this in many spheres of life. Maybe that’s wise, maybe it’s not. But we shouldn’t imagine that these centralized institutions are going to work perfectly or even well most of the time. It would be nice if we reacted to their inevitable failures not with rabid denunciation and cynicism, but with a little resiliency, an awareness that human systems fail and bad things will happen and we don’t have to lose our heads every time they do.
From the left, Salon‘s Glenn Greenwald applauds Brooks and carries the point further:
Fear is the foundation of most governments; but it is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men in whose breasts it predominates so stupid and miserable, that Americans will not be likely to approve of any political institution which is founded on it. The 5-year-old laying awake in bed, frightened by monsters in the closet, who then crawls into his parents’ bed to feel Protected and Safe, is the same as a citizenry planted in front of the television, petrified by endless imagery of scary Muslim monsters, who then collectively crawl to Government and demand that they take more power and control in order to keep them Protected and Safe
[D]emands that political leaders ensure that we can live in womb-like Absolute Safety are delusional and destructive. Yet this is what the citizenry screams out every time something threatening happens: please, take more of our privacy away; monitor more of our communications; ban more of us from flying; engage in rituals to create the illusion of Strength; imprison more people without charges; take more and more control and power so you can Keep Us Safe…
A citizenry drowning in fear and fixated on Safety to the exclusion of other competing values can only be degraded and depraved.
Ironically, as Greenwald points out, the American Revolution was founded on precisely the opposite mindset. He quotes John Adams’s 1776 essay, Thoughts on Government:
Fear is the foundation of most governments; but it is so sordid and brutal a passion, and renders men in whose breasts it predominates so stupid and miserable, that Americans will not be likely to approve of any political institution which is founded on it.
Greenwald goes on to describe in detail the news media’s fear-mongering role in all this. Well worth a read.
Predictably, America’s bloated security apparatus responded to the latest bombing attempt (which was thwarted not by security precautions but by quick-witted passengers) by adding yet more bloat in the form of bans carry-on bags and a requirement that passengers stay in their seats with nothing in their laps for the last hour of every inbound US flight. Thus travelers fall victim to a false syllogism Conservative Bryan Caplan once described this way:
- Something must be done.
- This is something.
- Therefore, this must be done.
All this comes as vindication to the sharpest critics of security precautions imposed after 9/11. Bruce Schneier has long argued that “only two things have made flying safer: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers.”
I’ve started to call the bizarre new TSA rules “magical thinking”: if we somehow protect against the specific tactic of the previous terrorist, we make ourselves safe from the next terrorist….
And what sort of magical thinking is behind the rumored TSA rule about keeping passengers seated during the last hour of flight? Do we really think the terrorist won’t think of blowing up their improvised explosive devices during the first hour of flight?….
Only one carry on? No electronics for the first hour of flight? I wish that, just once, some terrorist would try something that you can only foil by upgrading the passengers to first class and giving them free drinks.
To those who think the solution lies in the Israelification of American airport security, Schneier responds:
I don’t think it’s possible. The Israelis rely on a system of individual attention — interviews, background checks, and so on — that simply can’t be replicated on the scale required for America. If anything, we’re moving in the opposite direction: layers of annoying, time consuming, ineffectual, static — but automatic and scalable — security systems. Although it seems that we’re finally hitting the limit as to what the American business travel will put up with, and no security measure will survive wholesale rejection by the airlines’ most profitable customers.
In the best of many post-failed-bombing interviews with Schneier, the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg asked whether another airplane will inevitably be blown up.
The fact that we even ask this question illustrates something fundamentally wrong with how our society deals with risk. Of course 100% security is impossible; it has always been impossible and always will be. We’ll never get the murder, burglary, or terrorism rate down to zero; 42,000 people will die each year in car crashes in the U.S. for the foreseeable future; life itself will always include risk. But that’s okay. Despite fearful rhetoric to the contrary, terrorism is not a transcendent threat. A terrorist attack cannot possibly destroy our country’s way of life; it’s only our reaction to that attack that can do that kind of damage.
I want President Obama to get on national television and project indomitability. I want him to dial back the hyperbole, and remind us that our society can’t be terrorized. I want him to roll back all the fear-based post-9/11 security measures. We’d do much better by leveraging the inherent strengths of our modern democracies and the natural advantages we have over the terrorists: our adaptability and survivability, our international network of laws and law enforcement, and the freedoms and liberties that make our society so enviable. The way we live is open enough to make terrorists rare; we are observant enough to prevent most of the terrorist plots that exist, and indomitable enough to survive the even fewer terrorist plots that actually succeed. We don’t need to pretend otherwise.