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Have We Learned to Fight Terrorism?

Six years after 9-11, have we learned how to prevent terrorism? Perhaps, as there has not been a successful attack in the U.S. since then. On the other hand, it is hard to defend our current approach to airport security. After watching the TSA subject a three-year-old to the explosives-sniffing "blower" at an airport, my friend Amos Guiora, formerly a counter-terrorism specialist with the Israeli Defense Forces, wonders "where are we?"

What does subjecting a 3-year-old to the blower unattended by a parent (his mother went through the blower previously) tell me?

It tells me that we have yet to begin risk assessment and analysis, identifying legitimate threats has not been begun and sophisticated cost-benefit analysis of counter-terrorism is apparently in its infancy. How dangerous is this? Very.

As long as 3-year-old boys are made to go through blowers at airport security lines, we clearly are not focusing our limited resources on genuine threats. Rather than develop sophisticated prototyping models, we only hear "you have been selected for a random search."

Of course, this assumes that airport security is really about preventing terrorist attacks, as opposed to sufficiently inconveniencing air travelers so they feel a bit more secure.

UPDATE: In a related vein, Tom Kean and Lee Hamilton ask "Are We Safer?"

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Three-Year-Olds and Airport Security:
  2. Have We Learned to Fight Terrorism?
Guest101:
But at least they're keeping us safe from toothpaste and Evian bombs.
9.10.2007 9:36am
Anonperson (mail):
Sorry, it's not obvious to me why, say, a 20-year old would need to be tested, but not a 3-year old. Is it the body size? Is it not possible hide enough explosives on a 3-year old to bring down an airplane?

Or is the blower test only designed to test whether or not someone has been assembling explosives, and not actually carrying explosives?
9.10.2007 10:02am
Ken Arromdee:
Of course, this assumes that airport security is really about preventing terrorist attacks, as opposed to sufficiently inconveniencing air travelers so they feel a bit more secure.

Even assuming that there is no reason to test a 3 year old, that doesn't seem to be about just making people feel secure. It seems to be about preventing the government from being accused of racial profiling. And of course many of the groups who complain loudest about useless security measures are also the ones who'd complain loudest about any hint of racial profiling.
9.10.2007 10:14am
Jonathan H. Adler (mail) (www):
Anonperson--

The blower is intended to detect trace amounts of materials required for the manufacture of explosives, not necessarily the explosives themselves. Thus, if the 3-year-old's parent was put through the blower, there does not seem to be much reason to put the child through as well. From having discussed this issue with Amos, I know he also objects both to rote, randomized use of such technologies as well as to ethnic profiling. He believes there are alternatives, such as the various screening methods used by El Al. Whether such techniques could be implemented in the USA is another matter.

JHA
9.10.2007 10:18am
uh clem (mail):
Our approach to airport security is mainly to put on a show for the passengers. It's just so much Kabuki theater.

For instance, how many people have been caught with something in their shoes? Yet we're still taking off our shoes everytime we go to the airport. This is absurd.
9.10.2007 10:31am
William Oliver (mail) (www):
JHA-

Actually there does seem to be a reason -- the basic theory of trace evidence transfer. If mom makes the bomb, handles the kid, then changes clothes, the evidence will be on the kid. Further, of course, the idea that a 3yo will be carrying a bomb is silly only to us, not to fanatics; children have been used for this in the past and will be used for it in the future. Remember that it does not take a large bomb to breach a fuselage.

billo
9.10.2007 10:32am
CrosbyBird:
And of course many of the groups who complain loudest about useless security measures are also the ones who'd complain loudest about any hint of racial profiling.

Not this guy. If a bunch of brown-haired, hazel-eyed, light-skinned Jews flew a few planes into some buildings in this country, I'd expect to receive a little extra attention in the airports.

The security measures are not about making a safer environment for passengers, but about making the appearance of a safer environment for passengers.
9.10.2007 10:36am
J. F. Thomas (mail):
We simply still don't have the first clue about airport security. Several times I have reported unattended bags to airport officials (if you leave your bags unattended in Europe you will never see them again--they will be taken away and blown up on the tarmac), and all they ever do is scold the passengers when they come back to their bags. It is ridiculous.

Airport security in this country is a joke.
9.10.2007 10:36am
J. F. Thomas (mail):
I'm still praying for the first attempted bra-bombing of an airplane though.
9.10.2007 10:39am
Ken Arromdee:
For instance, how many people have been caught with something in their shoes?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Colvin_Reid
9.10.2007 10:42am
Houston Lawyer:
I believe we have already enforced the cockpit doors in planes to such an extent that anything less than a grenade is not a threat to the safety of a plane.

Good thing the government is in charge of security rather than private enterprise. That way we don't end up with completely useless and time consuming requirements.
9.10.2007 11:01am
Hoya:

For instance, how many people have been caught with something in their shoes? Yet we're still taking off our shoes everytime we go to the airport. This is absurd.



What a bizarre argument. The aim of searches includes deterring attempts. That no one has been caught can argue for complete success rather than failure.
9.10.2007 11:24am
JosephSlater (mail):
J.F. Thomas:

Was that a reference to the "Simpsons" bit, "this bra bomb of yours better work, Nerdlinger"? If so, well done.
9.10.2007 11:27am
Dan Weber (www):
The blower is intended to detect trace amounts of materials required for the manufacture of explosives, not necessarily the explosives themselves. Thus, if the 3-year-old's parent was put through the blower, there does not seem to be much reason to put the child through as well.


Maybe Dad made the bomb on the kid, then Mom took him along to blow up the plane?

There's a lot of silliness about airport security I won't defend, but this is a pretty straightforward thing to do. And really not that invasive. Hell, when my kids are/were 3, they will/would've loved going through the blower.

Again, lots of airport security is just theatre, but that doesn't mean all airport security is theatre.
9.10.2007 11:30am
John (mail):
The use of children is common in Islamic bombing. The blower is a non-event to the person being tested. Where's the beef?

As for the TSA, you have to realize that its employees generally can't find jobs elsewhere, as with many, many government employees. Unlike, say, the Israelis, who hire pretty sharp people for such jobs, our government is content with the dregs.
9.10.2007 11:40am
Aultimer:

Maybe Dad made the bomb on the kid, then Mom took him along to blow up the plane?


Or maybe Mom is running away from militant Isalmist boyfriend who secretly used boy to plant explosives in the parking garage, football stadium, or at the state capitol.

There's simply nothing wrong with the test at issue, which is unfortunate, because the problem of mock security is real and the worry about discrimination claims is real.

In any event, no more dollars should go to airport passenger security until the ports and borders are in MUCH better shape. Do we really think terrorists suffer from such an extreme lack of imagination?
9.10.2007 11:44am
J. F. Thomas (mail):
The use of children is common in Islamic bombing.

Do you have any evidence other than the word of Rush Limbaugh to back this outrageous statement up?

As for the TSA, you have to realize that its employees generally can't find jobs elsewhere, as with many, many government employees. Unlike, say, the Israelis, who hire pretty sharp people for such jobs, our government is content with the dregs.

Way to go, turn the reason for the creation of the TSA and the government takeover of airport security into the bizarro world version of history. It was exactly for the reasons you state that private airport security was found to be inadequate after 9/11.
9.10.2007 11:48am
rarango (mail):
Don't think I have ever read about a three year old; but you might want to google this term: "children used as suicide bombers."
9.10.2007 11:59am
J. F. Thomas (mail):
but you might want to google this term: "children used as suicide bombers."

Well I did, and apparently, very rarely teenagers have been suicide bombers. So to say it is "common" or to imply that very young children are involved is outrageous.
9.10.2007 12:08pm
Temp Guest (mail):
I attended a post-9/11 security briefing where the use of infants with soiled diapers in smuggling operations was discussed and suggested as an obvious tool that terrorists might use to get deadly materials into restricted areas. The ploy was common enough in other circumstances that all present agreed it had to be talken seriously. Smuggling things in soiled diapers may sound silly, but it's actually a common tactic and it works: Security workers don't like taking infants from their mothers, don't like dealing with poop, and - unless its explicit policy - are embarassed to do the right thing in these situations because they regard it as so very infra dig.
9.10.2007 12:08pm
Andy123:
Wow, I guess I imagined all of the folks who were terrorized by the anthrax attacks and the DC sniper. Because everyone keeps saying that there hasn't been any terrorism in the US since 9/11.
9.10.2007 12:13pm
Ray Fuller (mail):
The entire "War on Terrorism" is theatre of the absurd. E.g., airport and airplane security screening done randomly to avoid any possibly offensive "profiling". "Homeland" security federal funds allocated according to population and political power, instead of impact funding to the obvious and enemy-identified target cities (NYC, DC, LA). An FBI computer system that is still dysfunctional 6 years after the 9/11 attack. At least 12 million illegal immigrants in country, and no effective means of closing the borders (north and south), or of prescreening thousands of "tourists" last traveling from Europe. 60,000 illegals ordered deported after exhausting their legal appeals, with no government mechanism in place for enforcement. A President who would not voluntarily propose legislation adopting the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. A Supreme Court that expands the Geneva Conventions to non-State illegal combatants (aka "terrorists"). Not one 9/11 conspirator convicted in any civilian or military court, no less judicially executed for treason and/or sabotage and espionage. The commander of American armed forces in Iraq being accused of being a traitor in the pages of the New York Times (via paid advertisement), on the very day he addresses Congress and the American people, and just days after the self-declared leader of the war on America denounced him in another brilliant propaganda piece. (Would this not be akin to the Chicago Tribune denouncing Ike, Supreme Allied Commander in WWII, just after Hitler invited it? Patriotic vigilantes would have responded, surely.) Indeed, on the very day that Osama Bin Laden celebrated his 9/11 terrorist "sneak attack" via video, at least one of the two American political parties played politics with a war, with the Senate majority leader calling the American Iraq war commander a liar, as if on cue from Al Queda. And the Republicans just as shamelessly played politics in the last two elections by invoking the fear of terrorism and dismissing the necessity of political unity and broad public support in the war launched by Islamist terrorists. As Lincoln said in a different context, a house divided against itself cannot stand. The sad thing is that, in any honest war report, the terrorists still are winning, and there is no prospect for a reversal of our American misfortune. It is mildly surprising that no major political figure has yet taken up Bin Laden's offer for a truce in this war that the democracies of the West have not yet had the resolve or ability to win. I fear that in every war that America has won in the past, some compromise of the principles and practices of liberty and democracy has been necessary during its duration. America may not be prepared for such compromise until mass extermination by biological, chemical and/or nuclear weapons has been accomplished by our determined enemy.
9.10.2007 12:20pm
uh clem (mail):
The aim of searches includes deterring attempts. That no one has been caught can argue for complete success rather than failure.

You can make the same argument for Unicorn repellent. I haven't seen any Unicorns around here ever since I started using the Unicorn repellent. No siree!
9.10.2007 12:21pm
TyWebb:
I think the more important point in Mr. Guiora's article is that we have not moved from a randomized, rote security method, which leads one to conclude that the TSA has not identified specific threats with any regularity, much less instituted policies and technologies commensurate with those specific threats. I tend to agree with commenters that the blower is a non-event, and so I think this example is not very helpful to Mr. Guiora's overall point. Nevertheless, it is disconcerting that we have to take out ALL liquids and gels over a certain volume because we do not have the technology or search capabilities to differentiate between binary explosives and all-in-one shampoo/conditioner.
9.10.2007 12:25pm
rarango (mail):
Of course you could, uh clem, and when the government spends the amount of resources it does to repel unicorns that it is doing to try to counter domestic terrorism, your argument might be a little better than it is right now.
9.10.2007 12:27pm
Markxxx (mail):
Of course there is no chance that a 3-year-old will have explosives. That is, unless it is publicized that 3-year-olds are exempt from searches. Same with searches of nuns and grannies, pat downs of buxom blonde women, etc. A certain amount of unpredictable, even irrational entropy needs to be present in the system for it to deter.
9.10.2007 12:37pm
DC_JAG_Guy:
IMHO, most of the airline security measures are just a tiger rock. See The Simpsons, Much Apu About Nothing, 3F20 (May 5, 1996).


Homer: Not a bear in sight. The Bear Patrol must be working like a charm.

Lisa: That's specious reasoning, Dad.

Homer: Thank you, dear.

Lisa: By your logic I could claim that this rock keeps tigers away.

Homer: Oh, how does it work?

Lisa: It doesn't work.

Homer: Uh-huh.

Lisa: It's just a stupid rock.

Homer: Uh-huh.

Lisa: But I don't see any tigers around, do you?

[Homer thinks of this, then pulls out some money]

Homer: Lisa, I want to buy your rock!
9.10.2007 12:37pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
There was a report, shortly after 9-11, about a family who were staying in a hotel near an airport with a view to catching an early flight. Somebody knocked on their door and gifted them with a teddy bear for their cute little boy--how they were identified as potential airline passengers and connected with a cute little boy was not explained. The teddy bear proved to contain a small pistol.
The presumption was that this was a sort of recon. A probe. If this worked, fine. If not, something else.

The fact is, if there's a hole, somebody will attempt to use it. Terror does not require blowing a jumbo jet out of the sky. A small explosion which kills or seriously wounds two or three people in the seats nearby would do just fine, even if the plane landed safely. Because a plane which blows up all over the sky is one thing. It's beyond comprehension. Contemplating the thoughts of passengers covered with blood and body parts of their fellow passengers, listening to the shrieking of the injured, for however long it takes to get on the ground, is more terrifying. In the first case, everybody is just...gone. In the latter case...well, think about it.

IMO, the idea of random "spot checking" various possibilities is a good idea. The problem for the terrorist is not in failing. It's what happens in getting caught, and all the tracking back that would involve. It would be a good decision for the terrs to go to small stuff if it was the price of reducing the probability of failure and the associated intel gift to the US.

So, while I am not particularly impressed by the TSA, the doctrine of checking things which might be considered silly is defensible. Considering something too "silly" to consider is a good way to get somebody thinking about using it for cover. They might think of something.
9.10.2007 12:46pm
Hans Bader (mail):
Every time my wife traveled with our newborn daughter, she and the newborn were searched by the TSA.

This was hugely wasteful and inconvenient. She was carrying multiple pieces of luggage, with the baby tied to her physically with a wrap, which had to be painstakingly undone and redone.

She nearly missed her flights.

These searches didn't happen to her that often before our daughter was born.

Is my daughter on some don't-fly list? Does a 3-month old baby belong on such a list?

(Both my wife and I have worked for government agencies. I'm sure I've passed a background check. Why would my daughter be suspicious?)

Could even the TSA be that incompetent?

The TSA, in tests, lets suspicious items through airport security 2.5 times as often as the private security companies it replaced.

It makes another 9-11 even more likely.
9.10.2007 12:56pm
Sarah (mail) (www):
I'm not so worried about 3-year-olds being sent through blowers -- silly, but it's not like the kid got hurt. I'm more worried about what can get by (like the knives and guns and fake bombs that get snuck through in those tests security runs on itself) while everyone is carefully inspecting contact lens solution, dirty diapers, and the dissected remains of an 18-year-old girl's checked luggage. The definition of security pretty much requires dealing with some false positives, but false negatives are a more serious problem: our problem here is that we've got a system that makes us act like we have tens of thousands of false positives to deal with every day.

And I will remain forever grateful for the TSA officer who was willing to sit on my luggage (after he realized he wouldn't be able to use my vacuum-required compression bags, which he had opened even though he could see through them) in order to get it closed again.
9.10.2007 1:05pm
J. F. Thomas (mail):
The TSA, in tests, lets suspicious items through airport security 2.5 times as often as the private security companies it replaced.

link please
9.10.2007 1:08pm
Guest101:
Richard Aubrey,

You should provide a link for the gun in the teddy bear story, as it sounds very much like a post 9/11 urban legend. A quick Google search reveals that it actually did happen, albeit in 2003 and therefore not exactly "shortly after 9/11." http://www.cnn.com/2003/TRAVEL/07/17/gun.teddy.bear/
9.10.2007 1:17pm
abu hamza:
well I think it's an outrage for the 3 y/o boy to have to go through the bomb odor blower. the Tweezers Shampoo and Attitude administration hasn't made us any safer, just more inconvenienced and it's amazing how we line up and shrug when the sovereign wants us to hand over our rights.
9.10.2007 1:32pm
Dave Hardy (mail) (www):
It's funny to reflect that, when it comes to something really important to the government (taxes), they've dealt with this quite nicely.

Some audits are utterly at random. A few are in great depth, designed to figure out just how people are fudging, and thus devise a better profile.

Then the profiles come in. Fit one (more than X dollars in in-kind charitable contributions, more than X% of income to deductions in general, things that are out of line with others in your income class, etc.), and odds of being audited shoot up.
9.10.2007 1:39pm
Edward Lee (www):
So, while I am not particularly impressed by the TSA, the doctrine of checking things which might be considered silly is defensible. Considering something too "silly" to consider is a good way to get somebody thinking about using it for cover. They might think of something.

Sure, but my guess that the frequency with which the TSA searches 3-year-old kids and 80-year-old women is not optimal in the game-theoretic sense.
9.10.2007 1:45pm
David M (mail) (www):
Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 09/10/2007
A short recon of what's out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the day...so check back often.
9.10.2007 1:52pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Richard, if terrorists are going to be interested in attacks that "seriously wound two or three people," they can do that by strapping bombs to themselves, waiting until the TSA creates traffic jams in the airport by forcing everyone to stand in a long line, and then blowing themselves up right there.

You need to focus on big problems, not little ones.
9.10.2007 2:04pm
lordhelpus:
Andy123,

Wow, I guess I imagined all of the folks who were terrorized by the anthrax attacks and the DC sniper. Because everyone keeps saying that there hasn't been any terrorism in the US since 9/11.

This needs to be repeated--again.

Wow, I guess I imagined all of the folks who were terrorized by the anthrax attacks and the DC sniper. Because everyone keeps saying that there hasn't been any terrorism in the US since 9/11.

First it was:
There has not been an attack in the U.S. since 9/11.

Now we have:
There has not been a successful attack in the U.S. since 9/11.

Is it really that hard to get right? Let's just appoint a Ministry of Reality and get this over with.
9.10.2007 2:04pm
wm13:
Would either a game-theoretic optimized search routine or the methods used by El Al (assuming those aren't the same thing) pass muster under U.S. anti-discrimination law? Now that is an interesting question, as to which the bloggers and commentators here might have something intelligent and knowledgeable to say. Also a good exam question, I would think. All my learning on disparate impact, validation, etc. is 25 years out of date, I'm afraid, so I am genuinely curious.
9.10.2007 2:28pm
John (mail):
J.F. Thomas,

A quick Wikipedia entry, for what it is worth, on recruiting children to attack Israelis, is here.

I got it by Googling "suicide bomb child," and much more appears there.
9.10.2007 2:44pm
Hans Bader (mail):
The TSA's rules, which ban even considering characteristics like age in passenger screening, are stupid, and not, for the most part, required by federal antidiscrimination law.

One commenter (wm13) asks if El Al's screening techniques pass muster under American antidiscrimination law, such as disparate-impact discrimination claims, under which sensible rules must be thrust aside when they disproportionately affect some racial group, unless they are absolutely necessary to safety or the operation of a business.

I don't think federal law applies the disparate-impact burden to passengers; it's limited largely to the employment and housing context, and the federal race-discrimination law that applies to customers (42 USC 1981) doesn't have a disparate impact component.

But intentional racial discrimination is forbidden, even if race is just used as one of many factors, unless that is necessary to promote a compelling state interest and is narrowly-tailored to doing so.

But that involves race, not other characteristics like age.

I see no reason why the TSA cannot take age into account, to stop elderly women from being searched as often as males from Middle Eastern countries. (Considering foreign citizenship and country of origin is not the same thing as discriminating based on race for purposes of the Constitution).

The Supreme Court made clear in its Kimel and Garrett decisions that the government can legitimately discriminate based on age whenever it has a minimally rational reason for doing so.
9.10.2007 3:19pm
DJR:
"As long as 3-year-old boys are made to go through blowers at airport security lines, we clearly are not focusing our limited resources on genuine threats."

Overblown statements like this destroy credibility. So if we put Guiora in charge and did everything he said other than cease subjecting three-year-olds to puff blowers, we still would not be correctly focusing our resources. I don't need to click through because whoever this guy is, he's not thinking clearly.
9.10.2007 3:24pm
DC_JAG_Guy:
Considering foreign citizenship and country of origin is not the same thing as discriminating based on race for purposes of the Constitution

But isn't "[c]onsidering foreign citizenship and country of origin" an alienage classification? If so, it too is subject to strict scrutiny and thus essentially "the same thing as discriminating based on race for purposes of the Constitution." See Bernal v. Fainter, 467 U.S. 216 (1984)
9.10.2007 4:03pm
Cory Olson (mail):
This reminds me of the Family Guy that was on last night. Brian tells Stewie that he's going to get him back, but that Stewie won't know when it's going to happen. Of course, the fear of the unknown (but certain event) drives Stewie crazy.

My point is - the fear of an attack is worse than the attack itself. We have spent billions trying to control every little thing. At the same time, if we had six of us sit around in a circle, we could brainstorm 100 ways to get around security by mid-afternoon. Don't let you carry water bottles? Bring multiple small ones. If they guard planes, attack trains. If they guard trains, attack busses. So on and so forth.

All the while we wring our hands more and more and spend another billion here and another billion there (not to mention the inconvenience factor).

We have torn ourselves up over 1 attack 6 years ago involving less than 4,000 people.

Since that time, roughly 2.4 million have died of heart disease, 240,000 of influenza, and 68,000 by homicide, so it's not life.

We've spent billions giving ourselves a false sense of security. That means patting everyone down as they entered the college football game this past weekend. At such a wasted cost, it's not money.

So what is it?
9.10.2007 4:07pm
john w. (mail):
1.) For the past 60 years, the U.S. government has been running amok all over the world, sticking its nose into the internal affairs of other countries, and making enemies left &right. I would bet that if we as a nation just started minding our own *#$% business, the risk of terrorism would go down enormously.

2.) The fact that a terrorism risk exists on *domestic* flights is proof that the government is doing an abysmally poor job of keeping potentially dangerous aliens out of the country in the first place. If a majority (or evan a sizeable minority) of the people in country "X" hate our guts and want to kill us, then why in God's name do we continue to indiscriminately grant tourist visas and student visas to people from country "X" ??
9.10.2007 4:22pm
JSinger (mail):
The blower is intended to detect trace amounts of materials required for the manufacture of explosives, not necessarily the explosives themselves. Thus, if the 3-year-old's parent was put through the blower, there does not seem to be much reason to put the child through as well.

TSA workers aren't mass spec experts and should not be making subjective decisions about something like that, even if you're technically correct.

So, while I am not particularly impressed by the TSA, the doctrine of checking things which might be considered silly is defensible. Considering something too "silly" to consider is a good way to get somebody thinking about using it for cover.

The problem is that they don't check at random. They have a list (shoes, contact lens solution) of things that have been tried once in the past. As long as you avoid that very short list of vehicles, you're clear.

Would either a game-theoretic optimized search routine or the methods used by El Al (assuming those aren't the same thing) pass muster under U.S. anti-discrimination law?

Israeli questioning (which is layered on top of other measures, not in place of them) involves asking questions about who you are, what you were doing, where you were. For example, if you're claiming to be an apolitical Christian Swedish tourist college student and all your souvenirs and photos are from Ramallah or Nablus, that's a red flag.

Could that be done in a way that's compliant with US law? Perhaps, but it would inevitably attract criticism anyway. And it doesn't scale to TSA-size.
9.10.2007 4:30pm
LM (mail):
Cary Olson:

So what is it?

It's the first thing you mentioned: fear.

Human beings are not rational decision makers, whatever the economists may tell you. Rather, out brains overvalue anticipated loss by about a 2 to 1 margin over anticipated gain. Putting it another way, we grossly overvalue fear.
9.10.2007 4:52pm
LM (mail):
Doh! That should be "our," not "out."
9.10.2007 4:56pm
john w. (mail):
Cory Olson wrote: " ...At such a wasted cost, it's not money. So what is it? ..."

War is the health of the State, whether it's a War on Terror [sic] or a War on Drugs or a War on Deadbeat Dads, or whatever. 9/11 was a godsend opportunity to a government that was already hell-bent on expanding its power in every direction possible.

And so what if your chances of being killed by a terrorist are about a hundred times smaller than your chances of being killed by a drunk driver; imaginary hobgoblins are the best kind.

And the fact that the American people allow themselves to be stampeded by such a trivial (statistically speaking) death toll shows what a nation of cowards we have become. Good grief! London, during the WW-2 Blitz suffered about 5000 civilian deaths EVERY MONTH!
9.10.2007 4:56pm
ejo:
well, I stand a better chance of dying of a heart attack than of being killed in a terrorist attack as well-that still does not make them the same strategic threat to our nation. More Americans died of natural causes in the period from 1939-1945 than were killed by the Axis powers-should we have stayed home as a result? what is your tipping point for a response to terror attacks-are you fine with 5000 per month? obviously, 3000+ doesn't affect someone as worldly as yourself.
9.10.2007 5:44pm
john w. (mail):
ejo: That's a fair question, and I honestly don't know where my "tipping point" is. But I'm pretty sure it's at least a factor of ten higher than the status quo.

Averaged over the past ten years, there have been about 4000 people (round numbers) killed by terrorists on American soil. That comes out to 400 per year, compared to 4000 per year killed by drowning (for example) and 40,000 per year killed by automobiles.

I'm not saying we should totally ignore the risk; I'm just saying that the risk is *WAY* too low to justify giving up any freedom.
9.10.2007 6:12pm
john w. (mail):
Sorry, I hit the 'send' button too soon. I meant to say"

... the risk is *WAY* too low to justify giving up any freedom, especially when there are lots of measures that could be taken to reduce the risk, *without* impacting the freedom of American citizens -- such as not making enemies in the first place, and then not inviting them to come live/visit here, and of course: bombing the ones that DO attack us back into the Stone Age instead of wasting military resources on regimes that were no threat in the first place, such as Iraq.
9.10.2007 6:20pm
ejo:
your tipping point doesn't contemplate the goals of the folks on the other side. they want to kill more than 400 people a year-they would kill millions without a qualm of conscience. the same doesn't hold true for Uncle Ernie after a few too many martinis on the way home from work-hence the different responses.
9.10.2007 6:26pm
O. Hutchins (mail):
Am I the only one seeing that part of the problem here is making the 3 year old kid go through the blower unattended? Let the parent stay with the kid.
9.10.2007 6:30pm
LM (mail):
john w,

What you're overlooking is that the risk also includes potential terrorist attacks of far greater lethality, e.g., suitcase nukes. That said, I agree that it has become politically incorrect to suggest that these terror-associated risks be part of a broader cost-benefit analysis which includes the things you mentioned, as well as any number of other potentially lethal social scourges, e.g., crime, inadequate health care and nutrition, crumbling bridges, levies and other infrastructure, etc.
9.10.2007 6:31pm
Randy R. (mail):
Hans: "Every time my wife traveled with our newborn daughter, she and the newborn were searched by the TSA. "

But if a terrorist were to plant a bomb with a newborn daughter, the world would be screaming about why TSA didn't screen the baby.

the problem is that we all want to go through airports without any inconveniences. Then we want to security to catch only the criminals, not the law abiding citizens. When they make a mistake, either by inconveniencing the good, or letting go the bad, we blame them for incompetence.

That pretty much summarizes many of the posting here. In a perfect world, we could do all that, but we don't live in a perfect world, and we should accept the fact that even if you have highly paid, rigourously trained TSA people, they will make mistakes. The point is to target the low hanging fruit (not all terrorists are brilliant, afterall) and go after the easy stuff.

Personally, I like how they handle security in Europe and Israel much better, as the people are trained to ask questions and find inconsistencies, and observe stressful behavior and so on. Here in the US, we have a faith that technology will solve all our problems, which of course it doens't.
9.10.2007 6:54pm
Cory Olson (mail):
EJO - Fair point. Nobody would have a problem making sure that the terrorists do not get their hands on WMD or take an action that could kill 1 million people.

BUT... If I'm flying a small commuter plane going nowhere, do I really need to be checked as if I'm boarding a 747? Do I need to be patted down before I go into a second-rate college football game? Do I need to stip down before every flight and have some random person who happened to be hired for the TSA rummage through my bag?

It reminds me of a set of stats I saw in a law &econ class. It talked about the cost per life saved for various regulations. If we did that for terrorism, we'd be talking millions - if not billions - per life in raw cost. That doesn't account for hassle factors, longer wait times, etc.

So again - we're not buying lives (or at least not efficiently). We're just buying false sense of security.
9.10.2007 8:15pm
Malvolio:
1.) I would bet that if we as a nation just started minding our own *#$% business, the risk of terrorism would go down enormously.
You would? How much? Because I plan to cite terrorism in such low-profile countries as Spain, Indonesia, and Thailand and you can PayPal me the money.
2.) The fact that a terrorism risk exists on *domestic* flights is proof that the government is doing an abysmally poor job of keeping potentially dangerous aliens out of the country in the first place.
The US has 12,000 kilometers of land borders and 20,000 kilometers of coastline. Reliably keeping out someone who wants in is simply not an option.
9.11.2007 3:04am
Hans Bader (mail):
I said that for purposes of searching passengers, "Considering foreign citizenship and country of origin is not the same thing as discriminating based on race for purposes of the Constitution."

But DC Jag Guy said in response, "isn't '[c]onsidering foreign citizenship and country of origin' an alienage classification? If so, it too is subject to strict scrutiny and thus essentially 'the same thing as discriminating based on race for purposes of the Constitution.' See Bernal v. Fainter, 467 U.S. 216 (1984)"

Maybe so as to local governments, some of whose alienage classifications are subject to strict scrutiny.

But not as to Congress. The Supreme Court has said that Congressional alienage classifications are subject to mere rational basis review, and that Congress has plenary power to make such classifications.

Whether you agree with this local vs. federal distinction or not, the Supreme Court has made it law.

And the TSA, a federal agency, can thus use alienage classifications without hindrance in screening for terrorists.
9.11.2007 3:26pm
Seamus (mail):
Do I need to be patted down before I go into a second-rate college football game?

Good question. Do I really need to go through a metal detector before I go into the Government Printing Office bookstore on North Capitol Street. I know it's a government facility and all, but there must be a total of, what, two people in there at any time? I guess if I were a terrorist who was stymied by that search, I'd just have to console myself by going and blowing up Borders (which also has a metal detector of sorts, but it's to catch people shoplifting books *out*, not terrorists bringing bombs *in*).

And why am I forbidden to bring my Leatherman into the Old Post Office, anyway. I know it has what they laughingly call "a knife" on it, but are people really afraid that I'm going to use it to hijack the building and crash it into the White House?
9.11.2007 6:47pm
JB:
In Chicago Midway Airport, there is a sandwich shop, past security, that sells drinks in glass bottles.

Given that, all security screening for any weapon at all is completely useless.
9.11.2007 6:54pm
srp (mail):
There is no question that much of the domestic antiterror stuff is useless (or designed to reassure the public rather than deter/catch bad guys), but the quantitative risk analyses are fundamentally misguided. They are applying decision-theoretic notions to a game-theoretic issue.

When you're deciding on precautions to deal with bad weather, you don't have to worry that your failure to take precautions will cause bad weather. But when you face an opponent seeking to harm you, the probability of an attempted strike is not independent of your precautions. The behavioral response from the enemy is likely to be very large--they will ramp up their efforts to exploit the weakness. For example, if we hadn't secured the cockpit doors after 9/11, I'd believe that we would have seen many further attempts to get in there, if only to disable the pilots and crash the plane (since trained suicide pilots are a scarce commodity)

So comparisons of terrorism risks with exogenous risks like hurricanes and heat waves and bridge collapses is inappropriate.
9.11.2007 9:58pm