NEWS

Counterterror, Technology, and Reaction

By Bob Raffel

In the recent incident in Detroit, a homegrown, self-radicalized jihadist attempted to blow up an aircraft on Christmas day by igniting explosives hidden in his underwear. Since then, there has been the usual hue and cry concerning bureaucratic accountability and a call for technology to help rescue us from evildoers.  

Although full body imagers are capable of identifying contraband hidden beneath clothing, there’s no conclusive proof that they can locate articles stuffed in body cavities, much less the explosive powders used by the failed bomber. They’re also large machines that take up valuable space in the bottlenecks that many airport screening areas have become.
 
Besides, it’s a machine, not a panacea. The terrorists will eventually become familiar with its limitations. “Terrorists will easily evade body scanners,” the American Civil Liberties Union argued recently. “The terrorist threat is a dynamic threat – terrorists react and adapt to security measures, and that fact must be taken into account in selecting those measures.”
 
Civil aviation security is basically reactive. Passengers and their carry-on luggage began to be screened in the early 1970’s in response to an escalating number of aircraft hijackings, mostly by homesick Cubans seeking a return to the island. The industry has retained that model ever since.
 
When Richard Reid tried unsuccessfully tried to ignite explosives hidden in his shoes on an American Airlines flight in December 2001, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) reacted with emergency rulemaking almost immediately. Without undue debate, they imposed (rather artificial) limitations on the amount of liquid one could carry on aircraft. Mr. Reid’s efforts eventually had the rest of us padding through screening lines shoeless.
 
Much of what constitutes aviation security today is a direct result of reactions to attacks, whether successful or attempted. The process of action equals reaction began with the FAA and was adopted by its successor agency, the TSA. This reactive approach does make the system more secure. The screening devices work as advertised. Deploying a “new” technology also makes people feel safer. The government is doing something; we feel better. 
 
But more secure isn’t the same as foolproof. More attacks will be attempted and some will be successful. Not everyone can be protected all the time. The fatalistic recognition of vulnerability shared by citizens of other countries is not as acceptable to the American ethos. No elected official will ever admit our vulnerability; few Americans are prepared to accept it. 
 

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