I’m sure you’ve been just as saturated as anyone else with the media repeatedly blowing up (no pun intended) coverage of the recent attempt by a crazy person to ignite an incendiary device attached to his leg on NW Flight 253 this Christmas. Having just been through airport security at Amsterdam (through which Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab passed with his explosives), I can tell you that there’s really not a whole lot to it.
Unlike virtually all American airports, Amsterdam’s does not feature a few centralized security checkpoints, but instead performs security screenings right at each flight’s departure gate. A staff of three Aviation Security officials run your coat, shoes, and carry-on baggage through an X-ray, while two other officials monitor you as you pass through the metal detector. I noticed that the girl in front of me passed through the metal detector wearing her shoes, which were neither X-rayed, swabbed, or otherwise inspected. The Aviation Security officials did not seem to notice this however, and she was allowed to pass through without incident. I knew she wasn’t a terrorist, because I recognized by her appearance and mannerisms that she was U.S. Army, so I wasn’t worried (I'm U.S. Military myself). But it got me thinking about just how many other things could have slipped past them unnoticed. On this flight alone.
Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of metals, flammables, explosives, electronics or weapons could easily devise ways to smuggle “prohibited” items through airport security. There are generally two reasons why we don’t: 1) We’re not criminals/terrorists/whatever, and 2) We’re not keen on the idea of getting caught in the attempt. But I’ve read articles by well-meaning security enthusiasts who have managed to sneak all manner of contraband through various airport security screenings, in an attempt to expose their weaknesses. One man wrote that he even dressed in a heavy coat, splashed his face with water to simulate sweat, presented a fake one-way boarding pass, acted nervous and uneasy, and told the TSA officers that he had “lost his driver’s license” to explain why he could not produce a government-issued ID. And he was allowed to pass through security without further inquiry.
What I like to call the “Security Theater” is just that: an act. Staged for the single purpose of making the layperson feel like agencies like the TSA are actually protecting them. It makes Joe and Jane Traveler warm and fuzzy to think that having their shoes X-rayed at the airport is preventing The Terrorists from bombing their plane. But it’s really not preventing anything. If I wanted to (though I certainly DON’T, mind you), I could hijack an aircraft with one of my mechanical pencils. If I did, you can bet your bottom dollar that TSA would impose an immediate ban on mechanical pencils on flights. But this reactionary approach to airline security (or any form of security for that matter) is flawed. There are an infinite number of ways to subvert airport security, and to seek to defend against them all implies an infinite cost, in both resources and civil liberties.
There are many reasons why no organized military in the world would be willing to fight a land war in North America. But the chief reason? It’s not our military strength. It’s not the terrain. It’s not our technology. It’s our Second Constitutional Amendment, the Right to Bear Arms. It’s because if you’re a hostile force on American soil, you face death at the hands of the American Military, just as surely as those of any civilian farmer, lawyer, accountant, dentist, electrician, factory worker or gas pump attendant that might be in the area. It’s because our citizenry is empowered to defend themselves with deadly force if necessary. Empowering the common man with the ability to protect his life, family, property and human rights has the effect of deterring would-be aggressors, as well as keeping governments honest and in check.
So my question is this: why do we feel like we need this Security Theater act at all? Why are we petrified at the thought of some thug trying to blow up the plane we’re on? Why are we so willing to inconvenience ourselves, willing to surrender our liberty and privacy at the airport to maintain this fruitless illusion of security? One woman answered it best:
“…One problem is we're leaving ourselves helpless -- assuming that the checkpoints will work, creating "sterile zones", and if those methods fail we have nothing to fall back on. Israel, on the other hand, requires that all of its citizens undergo military training -- and curiously enough, being armed in public is commonplace. Carrying knives onto planes is legal. Very few terrorists succeed despite the large numbers of attempts occurring daily, because at any point a citizen has the training to take a terrorist down and knows that they are surrounded by others who also have training and know what to do, look for, and react when a situation occurs.
Whereas in this country, our sense of helplessness and fear leads people to become terrified of a man with food poisoning puking his guts out in the bathroom during landing -- because of the color of his skin. That's simply pathetic for so many reasons, first of which is that the guy must have been terrified to open the door for fear of being dragged out and beat on by a bunch of people who'd already judged him a threat and could easily kill him for doing nothing worse than eating a burrito that didn't agree with him and that's a shame on us. Secondly, that our rules are so stringent and unyielding that we would make grown people piss or shit their pants, vomit over each other and themselves -- and for what? How can that possibly help security? This is a pathetic state of affairs that wouldn't exist if we as a society felt we could take care of ourselves.
Our problem isn't in terms of operational security -- our problem is culture. We are constantly told to be docile and passive in the face of lethal threats. How is this a sane response? Anyone who's had even the most minimal combat training will tell you that the right answer 98% of the time is to turn into the attack. I don't care if the guy has fully automatic assault rifle and body armor on the plane -- five people with pocket knives within fifteen feet of him bum-rushing him's going to drop him if they're coordinated. And yes, a couple people will die that is a certainty -- or you can sit there and let the two hundred or so people die. Really, now -- if you had the knife in your hand, which option would you pick? Wait for death, or meet it head on? We all strive to prevent the worst-case scenario, but we shouldn't be paralyzed by fear if we find ourselves in it.
Terrorism only works because we allow ourselves to be afraid. As politely as I can say this -- stop living in fear. Learn how to defend yourself and then stop putting yourself in high-risk situations. That's advice that works as well for countries as it does for individuals.”
~girlintraining, Slashdot commentator
A strong nation -- strong enough to defeat terrorism -- must be populated by strong individuals, led by a strong government, each and all equipped with the knowledge and the willpower necessary deter and disarm wannabe murderers like Abdulmutallab.
“Those who sacrifice essential liberty for temporary security deserve neither, and will lose both.”