I don’t have access to any terrorist handbooks, but I imagine that having succeeded beyond expectations in the chapters dealing with “how to disrupt,” those who would threaten air travel have moved on to sections covering “ways to divide.” And the beauty, from the terrorists’ point of view, is that it’s all working without the need for much actual terrorism.
When formal nationwide protests are organized against airport body scans, when passengers revolt against TSA pat-downs, when the Homeland Security chief must issue pleas for patience, the nation is definitely divided.
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 no bullets.
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.
©2010 Peter Funt. This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc. newspaper syndicate. For info call Cari Dawson Bartley at 800 696 7561 or e-mail Cari@cagle.com.