More Thoughts on Airline Security

There is an interesting column about airline security by Bruce Schneier at CNN's web site today. Because of my interest in "low probability/high impact" events, I have had his web site bookmarked for a long time.  He coined the phrase "security theatre" to describe much of that is done by the TSA. While I don't agree with everything in today's column, I certainly agree with this:

Security is both a feeling and a reality. The propensity for security theater comes from the interplay between the public and its leaders.

When people are scared, they need something done that will make them feel safe, even if it doesn't truly make them safer. Politicians naturally want to do something in response to crisis, even if that something doesn't make any sense.

Often, this "something" is directly related to the details of a recent event. We confiscate liquids, screen shoes, and ban box cutters on airplanes. We tell people they can't use an airplane restroom in the last 90 minutes of an international flight. But it's not the target and tactics of the last attack that are important, but the next attack. 

Now, after we have spent tens of millions on "puffers" to detect bombs only to have them disengaged at many airports, we are now hearing we need to spend many more tens of millions on the "nude machine" also known as "fully body scanners."  Of course, those do not detect items hidden in body cavities, so I can hardly imagine what comes after the nude machine.

I'd like to suggest a different approach.

For some reason, when I was reading about the new security rules last night, I recalled a speech by Winston Churchill:

4 June 1940
"I have, myself, full confidence that if all do their duty, if nothing is neglected, and if the best arrangements are made, as they are being made, we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our Island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.

At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do. That is the resolve of His Majesty's Government-every man of them. That is the will of Parliament and the nation.

The British Empire and the French Republic, linked together in their cause and in their need, will defend to the death their native soil, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength.

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail.

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches, 
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender,
and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old."

Do you believe that if Churchill were President of the U.S. today, he would be putting up with any of this nonsense? President Obama is quite capable of making a speech like this (he is an excellent orator, like Churchill). I'd like to see him deliver it. Its time we stop overreacting to these incidents.

What would I do?

The passengers: Lets dial back airport security to the way it was before 2001 except keep the random bomb detection they do on luggage and carryons. Those on the no-fly list will still not be able to get boarding passes (that is done electronically through computer matching). That's it. No shoe carnival, no "no going to the bathroom the last 60 minutes," no "threat level orange," etc., etc.

Checked bags: The one area where we need improvement is for checked baggage. I am concerned that it is still not sufficiently screened and there have been far too many incidents of TSA people arrested for theft (here  for recent information) from checked bags, that even the TSA acknowledges. If they will steal from the bags, what else might they do?

Otherwise, that's it. Yes, we need a reasonable level of airport security but we have gone well past that level recently.

Sometimes less is more. This is America, "land of the free, home of the brave."

UPDATE: The New York Times' David Frum seems to agree.  
UPDATE II:  UCLA law professor Steven Bainbridge comes to the same conclusion in an interesting way.  
UPDATE III:  Fixed some broken links.
UPDATE IV:  Interesting article from Great Britain, illustrating the fallacy of chasing each individual threat after the fact:
But Ben Wallace, the Conservative MP, who was formerly involved in a project by a leading British defence research firm to develop the scanners for airport use, said trials had shown that such low-density materials [in the bomber's underwear] went undetected.


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