The U.S. has managed to avoid a major domestic airline incident since 9/11,
and all peace-loving travelers hope to keep it that way. But government's tendency
to be reactive rather than proactive in screening procedures, many of which are
aimed more at stirring the public than frightening the perps, underscores the
difficulty - some would say futility - of conducting effective airport security
in today's world.
For the record, it's been nearly a decade since a British citizen named Richard
Reid took a flight from Paris to Miami wearing shoes that contained a small amount
of explosives. Ever since, travelers have been ordered to remove their shoes
at airport checkpoints, despite the fact that shoe bombs have never been proved
to be any more popular among terrorists than, say, bow tie bombs.
And now, it's ink cartridges. In response to the discovery last month of a
bomb disguised as a toner cartridge in cargo originating in Yemen and shipped
through London, passengers are limited to 16 ounces of ink or toner in both checked
and carry-on baggage.
In announcing the new restrictions, security chief Janet Napolitano noted, "The
threats of terrorism we face are serious and evolving," confirming the obvious.
She added, "these security measures reflect our commitment to using current
intelligence to stay ahead of adversaries," reflecting the fact that even
a decade after 9/11, US security forces seek to "stay ahead" largely
by looking behind.
Bruce Schneier, the respected security analyst and author, refers to this
as "security theater." It's the process of implementing procedures
designed to make the public feel more secure while doing little to improve actual
security. This approach began within hours following the 9/11 attacks with the
stationing of soldiers at US airports, toting guns that Schneier points out had
To the extent that a show of strength in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 was
helpful in reassuring a frightened public, it might have been a wise bit of theater.
But as an ongoing strategy, it's costly, inconvenient, and generally ineffective.
Come Thanksgiving Day, the nation's airports will have been at what Homeland
Security calls "Condition Orange" for 1,588 straight days. That seems
like an awfully long time to hold the public's attention for what government
considers a "high" state of alert. Why not just skip the announcements,
or at least start referring to the situation as "Condition Normal"?
Schneier believes that the most meaningful security measures are largely invisible
to the general public and therefore don't please politicians. They include: enhancing
the intelligence-gathering abilities of the secret services, hiring cultural
experts and Arabic translators, building bridges with Islamic communities both
nationally and internationally, funding police capabilities, and arresting terrorist
plotters without media fanfare. He notes, "These security measures don't
make good television, and they don't help, come re-election time. But they work,
addressing the reality of security instead of the feeling."
Crowing that we "haven't been hit" again since 9/11, as George W.
Bush has on his book tour, overlooks the fact that the goal of terrorists is
not just to cause death and destruction, but also to promote fear while disrupting
and reconfiguring the routines of our everyday lives.
By that measure, tragically, America continues to be hit every day.
(c) Peter Funt. This column was originally distributed by the Cagle Syndicate.