Gwynne Dyer: Common sense should trump symbolic “security” measures
It is the duty of all public officials to “do something” whenever a new threat appears, even if there is nothing sensible to be done. If they don’t make a show of solving the problem, the media will punish them severely. So we have had a vigorous U.S. government response to the recent apprehension of the Underpants Bomber.
Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was from Nigeria, and he was Muslim. Therefore, the U.S. government has announced that all travellers to the United States from Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Yemen, and seven other Muslim or partly Muslim countries will face extra checks at airport security. They will be patted down by hand, and their carry-on bags will also be searched by hand. So that’s all fixed, then. No more exploding underpants.
Except that Abdulmutallab’s underpants were on his body, so hand searches of cabin baggage aren’t going to help much. Moreover, it is far from certain that a physical patdown of Abdulmutallab would have detected the guilty underpants.
Then there are the curious additions and omissions in the list of countries affected. Cuba is included, presumably in order to have at least one non-Muslim country on the list, although there has never been any Cuban support for anti-U.S. terrorism. (Rather the other way around, in fact, though that was long ago now.)
More striking is the absence of Britain, France, and the Netherlands from the list of countries whose travellers must get the full treatment. Britain was the home of Richard Reid, the unsuccessful Shoe Bomber, who actually departed for the U.S. from Paris. The group who were caught preparing to smuggle explosive liquids aboard U.S.-bound flights in aerosol containers were British. Abdulmutallab actually passed through Schiphol airport security in the Netherlands on his way to Detroit. Why are these countries exempt?
Probably because the number of visitors from those countries is too large. The number could be cut down drastically if “profiling” were permissible, since not very many non-Muslim suicide bombers attack the United States. However, even profiling entire COUNTRIES for special searches brought an anguished protest from Nawar Shora of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee: "This is extreme and very dangerous. All of a sudden people are labelled as related to terrorism just because of the nation they are from."
And profiling INDIVIDUALS is an absolute no-go area: all the Christian Nigerians (half of the population) must be patted down, too. For every young Muslim male who is selected for a more intensive search, one non-Muslim grandmother must be pulled aside as well.
This is starting to sound like a rant, but I’m not actually demanding more stringent security measures. I am arguing in favour of less “security” at the airport, and a lot more emphasis on real security work before the would-be bombers check in.
With the sole exceptions of Richard Reid and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, ALL the plots to blow up airliners bound for the United States since 9/11 have been thwarted by the intelligence services, not by the hundreds of thousands of poorly paid “security” personnel who staff the gates at the airports. And they didn’t catch either Reid or Abdulmutallab. What conclusions should we draw from that?
We should conclude that further “enhancements” to airport security are a total waste of time and money, although basic security that stops people from smuggling guns and knives aboard aircraft should be maintained. Don’t reward the politicians for submitting to the idiotic measures that the media demand of them. Accept that nothing is perfect, and remember that you are still fifty times more likely to die in a car crash than in an aircraft crash, whether caused by human error, technical failure, or underpants bomb.
The alternative is to try to close every loophole—and the obvious hole in airport security today is the fact that they do not check for anal bombs.
The first suicide bomber with an explosive device in his rectum has already struck, although not on an aircraft. Four months ago, an al-Qaeda-linked militant passed through all the security checks and blew himself up during an audience with Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia’s deputy interior minister. His bomb was presumably detonated by remote control, but an airline passenger could simply go to the toilet and trigger it himself.
If Abdulmutallab had boarded the Detroit-bound aircraft with the explosive device inside his body rather than sewn into his underpants, how were the security staff going to find it? Only by the time-tested method that prison guards regularly use: the “body cavity search.”
This could obviously be done at airports too. You’d have to hire five or six times as many guards and expand the security area considerably to give those being searched some privacy, but if we were really determined to eliminate every threat to air travel, every suspicious body cavity could be searched. Just bend over, please, sir or madam.
Yet nobody has proposed putting this policy into effect, and that is not because they are worried about a shortage of latex gloves. The whole airport security mania is largely symbolic, and body cavity searches would upset far more people than they would reassure—so in this case, common sense trumps “security”. It should do so in many other cases too.
Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, Climate Wars, was published recently in Canada by Random House and Vintage.
Jan 4, 2010 at 2:10pm
This mentality is nothing new. If people have authority, they will tend to use it. My school years featured this regularly. When a pupil was almost hit by a car in the parking lot, they banned pupils walking through the parking lot. A couple of youngsters apparently had sex on an overnight school trip, so they stopped overnight trips. Problem solved. But those who trade their liberty for security deserve to have neither.
Jan 5, 2010 at 9:00pm
Nice to hear a political commentator who doesn't blow things out of proportion and uses 'common sense'
Jan 6, 2010 at 12:16pm
From a Sept 13 '09 Toronto Sun story by Greg Weston about a test of the new scanning machines at Kelowna Airport.
"Over 70% of the 32,000 travellers who passed through the Kelowna scanners set off an alarm that prompted further inspection.
Not one piece of contraband was found as a result."
Jan 14, 2010 at 7:14pm
These new rules are just plain nuts. A couple weeks ago I took a one day flight from Edmonton to Minneapolis and got to see how dumb this was. I just took my laptop and cables in my normal laptop knapsack. I was not allowed to take the knapsack so I had to carry my laptop and book with me. So all this stuff goes through the x-ray and they dig through my book and check the laptop. I see purses and stuff getting searched to. Ok, great all the purses, laptops and bags are clear. How much more would it have taken to do my knapsack, seriously? So then I get the secondary pat down, well good thing they did not pat down my ass crack, who knows what I could have stuffed there. What I am saying is that they are checking any carry on as well as they should always do and could do without this crazy "no carry on" rule.
The best part was that when I flew back, there was no rule. What's the difference? Same guy, same route, same day, same bag. All I needed to do would be to get to the US and on the way back do my bad deed. The security in the US was a bit tighter than usual, but nothing crazy (well too crazy).
One other thing I would like to see is an addition to the Nexus pass. I did all kinds of security check stuff (not rigorous) that verified that I am not a threat and can be trusted a bit. Maybe us business travelers could be allowed to be exempt from some of these "rules" as we have been already cleared and can be trusted.
Hopefully this one will go away quick as my 30 min clear customs and security is now about 90 min. I really feel for those security guys (no honestly) as they are the front line getting the brunt of the pissed off people.
Jan 15, 2010 at 2:22am
As a European it is very simple. You do NOT visit north america, it is not worth the problems involved any longer. To boycott tourism to the US and avoid non-essential business might influence the US to stop being silly and terminate this utterly useless security show.
Target the Terrorists
Jan 15, 2010 at 8:32am
Obviously, if you want actual security, you would practice discrimination against Muslims - targeting them specifically for searches.
Years ago, greater than 90% of people traveling from Nigeria smuggled drugs into the U.S. The policy was to subject every Nigerian to possible body cavity searches. Since these were Nigerians, obviously, hardly anybody complained that this was happening. Only one article about a U.S. black woman with Nigerian roots who was subjected to the body cavity search was published. But then again, since "drugs" were the problem, there was no big hoopla that this was happening.
Jan 15, 2010 at 9:49am
Since the underpants bomber there have been more travel disruptions by idiotic caucasion bomb hoaxers than any real threat.
Jan 16, 2010 at 3:45am
Al this is really insane... :-/
I agree with David K.
AVOID any non-essential trip to USA.
And... apply to ALL flight USA-to-Europe the SAME (pseudo) "security" rules.
"They don't trust us? We won't trust them!"
The funn thing is that nobody in the airports complaints with all this nonsense. Everybody say "Hei! I feel really secure, now!".
As Gwynne Dyer and "Bare Facts" pointed out, there's no statistical evidence that all of those paranoic controls are really effective: au contraire!
Why did they do them?
Ben Franklin says a right thing:
A blonde is cought with something "terrorism related" in her purse?
Every blonde's purse will be split apart and thoroughly inspected.
If I were a terrorist, I sure put my bomb in a redhead man backpack!
Who cares of redhead's backpack?
I think this is very simple to understand, but the approach remains too "cause-effect".
And yes: it's much more symbolic than effective.
Know what I think?
Terrorism has already won his war.
All this money and people and unjustifiable waste of time are the clear demonstrations of this.