The failed in-flight bombing of a US airliner on Christmas Day 2009 is a reminder that terrorism is still with us. And, just as with the failed in-flight bombing of a US airliner by Richard Reid in 2001, once the 2009 event was foiled, a wave of ‘enhanced’ aviation security measures were announced to protect the traveling public. These measures ranged from preventing passengers from using pillows during the final hour of the flight and locking lavatories to preventing flight crews from making cabin announcements of geographic points of interest along the flight route.
In other words, the response ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. Thankfully, some of the more idiotic ‘enhancements’ were softened once it became obvious that both passengers and aircrews believed such lunacy did not ‘enhance’ anything but their discomfort and confusion while aloft.
We know how little it takes to spook the public and lawmakers about aircraft and airport security, even in cases when the vulnerability in question has been remedied. Yet after the Christmas 2009 bombing attempt, pundits and fear-inspiring Congressmen still discuss how easy it would be to commandeer an aircraft in-flight despite reinforced cockpit doors, passengers willing to fight back, and in some cases as a last resort, armed pilots. There is no limit to the real or perceived what-ifs that can drive homeland security policy decisions, it seems.
Our adversaries — be they al-Qaeda or others — realize this. As such, my question is: Despite the high-profile attraction of passenger aviation, what happens when they change their target?
After 9/11, I gave a briefing describing several terrorism scenarios in the United States and the possible outcomes. These examples ranged from ‘traditional’ ideas like chemical plant attacks and schoolyard shootings to more sinister and subdued schemes. The latter category included synchronized pipe bombs going off in mall garbage cans on the Friday after Thanksgiving, introducing small bombs into commercial office buildings or city busses concealed in consumer electronics and laptops, planting small bombs around key roadway intersections, bridges, or interchanges (think present-day Iraq), and other ‘doable’ (i.e., simple) possibilities. In each case, I emphasized that wide-scale damage or death was not required to cause significant damage to the American economy and national psyche, and that even failed attacks would yield tangible results for our adversaries by forcing us to spend vast sums to counter those threats and change significantly our mindsets and daily routines. The failed and foiled Christmas 2009 bombing attempt reminds us of this fact.
But given the erratic and schizophrenic security responses to terrorism involving aircraft since 9/11, what will be our national response when our adversaries shift their focus towards other non-aviation targets? Here, I refer to things closer to our homes and families, such as schools, movie theaters, and shopping malls.
My primary concern is not just the adverse significant impact on the economy or sense of public well-being resulting from such hypothetical events, but the national reaction to these events and their impact on American society and psyche. I worry that such responses will be inconsistent, overly aggressive, and rooted in a fearful, risk-adverse philosophy … which in turn facilitates and sustains a fearful and risk-adverse society. Such is what Ron Suskind refers to as the ‘One Percent Doctrine’, or how the previous Administration viewed threats: specifically, that if a threat is believed only to have a one percent chance of occurring, countermeasures to that threat must be enacted as if the threat had a one-hundred percent chance of occurring. Unfortunately, when an adversary can devise new tactics quickly, that’s a lot of One Percents requiring defense, even if the actual chances of them occurring are infinitely remote. And that’s what is happening now at our airports and on our aircraft. It’s both time-consuming and costly, too
For aircraft, first it was guns and grenades, then knives, mace, and box-cutters. Then it was liquid explosives in shoes and crotches. Thus we pass through metal detectors and have restrictions on carry-on liquids and gels, shoes being removed and scanned, and now, calls for full-body scanners to detect crotch-bombs. One only wonders what the security ‘enhancements’ will be for our schools, movie theaters, and shopping malls if they become terror’s next target within the American homeland. How will our lives be disrupted then in the name of security?
In the security world, we accept risk and realize that Total Security does not exist nor is achievable. However, while Washington politicians might agree with this sentiment in their media interviews (and some have made such statements, ironically) the efforts of the homeland security industrial complex supported by these politicians, is the exact opposite. Thus, again we witness the ‘One Percent Doctrine’ being used to promote new, ‘enhanced’ measures that suggest Total Security indeed is doable. It is not — but for some, it certainly will be profitable. Such is the nature of politicians’ logic during times of crisis: something must be done: this is something, so therefore we must do it.
Sadly, America must accept a certain amount of risk in its daily life, and recognize the reality that our adversaries can, and will, change tactics and targets to accomplish their nefarious tasks of sowing terror. Certainly, we can, and should, raise the bar where possible and prudent, but not in a knee-jerk manner based on fear rather than objective risk analysis and management. We cannot afford, socially or economically, to let every single failed incident serve as a ‘wake up call’ that leads to further inconveniencing of the law-abiding citizenry under the rubric of ‘enhanced’ security.
Therefore, the question remains: What Happens When They Change Targets?
RICHARD FORNO can be reached through his website: www.infowarrior.org