A lot has been written recently about the invasive searches being conducted by the TSA on presumably innocent travelers wanting to board a commercial airplane. Much of what has been said has focused a lot on what was being done without much talk about how else we could tackle the security issue.
Generally stated, the searches done at security choke-points at airports are for the purpose of preventing terrorist acts (planned and otherwise) from occurring on an airplane. And yet, time after time, bomb-tests slip through. Sometimes actual terrorists get through. I don’t recall actually hearing on the news that a terrorist has actually been caught by the TSA at the security check-in. It makes you wonder if what we have is more theater than actually effective.
If we know what we are trying to stop, then maybe we can come up with a better method of prevention. So…what, exactly are our goals with this?
Goal #1: Prevent the airplane from being taken over and used as a weapon against us.
This is basically the “never let 9-11 happen again” goal. The simple solution is to lockdown the cockpit. Simply make it all but impossible for a terrorist or cell to enter the cockpit. Given prudent restrictions on things like assault weapons and such, it’s not a difficult engineering feat to secure the cockpit. A little more difficult is to prevent the flight crew from caving in to whatever atrocities might be happening in the cabin, but that isn’t the goal we’re concerned with at the moment.
Simply by strengthening the cockpit and preventing the materials to breach that shield should pretty much accomplish this goal. This was actually one of the first safeguards put in place after the hijacks of 9-11.
But what if the terrorists happen to have found the means to breach the cockpit? There needs to be a means for the flight crew to disable the plane themselves. First, there must be an accepted policy that in lieu of a take-over, the goal is to force the plane to crash in as safe a fashion–to those on the ground–as possible. Next is more engineering to create the means to accomplish this. This needs to be well-considered as a sufficiently sneaky terrorist will attempt to use this very procedure as a method of terror as well.
Goal #2: Prevent the destruction of the aircraft from the cabin so long as it doesn’t violate the first goal.
Again, this one is fairly simple in concept: don’t allow people with explosives onto the plane. Ostensibly, this is what the TSA checks are for: to find explosives. The trouble is that the TSA’s method have yet (again, as far as I know) to actually find any explosives before they got on the plane. We hear about explosives in shoes and underwear but only after these have been discovered in-flight.
If we go with the assumption that a terrorist is ruthless and will use any means to get his weapon on board, that does mean that everyone from infant to not-yet-dead is suspect. We need to decide what the threat actually is. How much explosive is necessary to bring down a plane in flight? What kind of explosive? (Different explosives are intended for different results.)
The methods used to successfully bring down a plane are important to evaluate. Most modern aircraft are amazingly durable when their integrity is compromised. Relying on actual testing–not Hollywood fantasies–exactly what explosives and in what quantity are we looking for?
I don’t know. Would a hand-sized piece of C-4 be enough? Golf ball? Can the explosive be manufactured in flight from vials of otherwise innocuous liquids? Does it need a detonator?
It’s important to know that if the smallest reasonable (i.e. non-lucky) amount of explosive necessary to bring down a plane is the size of a standard brick, then we know that looking for things smaller than that are less than efficient in achieving our goal.
Goal #3: Prevent harm to the passengers and cabin crew while not violating the first two goals.
Now we’re into the area of how silly do we want to get? By this point we have (hopefully) confiscated explosives, firearms, and weapons useful in-cabin. So far, it doesn’t seem too insane. If you start looking at the TSA prohibited items list (here), you scratch your head sometimes.
The thing is, you can make a case for why many items are on the list. Some are actual weapons while others could, possibly, somehow, masquerade explosives. Understandably, the airlines aren’t encouraging people to bring flammable items onto their planes; after all, it’s generally unwise to open the windows at 20,000 feet to let the smoke out.
But here is where we need to evaluate the risk. It’s not not so much the risk to the plane itself, but to the people in the plane’s cabin. The fact is that any person with special-forces-equivalent training can create quite a bit of unrest in the cabin with or without the items on the TSA list. I mean…all those snow globe and Dr. Scholl’s gel-insert massacres are legion (I kid).
The likelihood of anything happening are so remote after basic, yet thoughtful screening, that the condition of the cabin largely takes care of itself if the culture allows it. I’m reminded of a line from the movie, Ghandi: “100,000 Englishmen simply cannot control 350 million Indians, if those Indians refuse to cooperate.” It’s the same on a plane. Lacking firearms, 1 or 2 terrorists aren’t going to control 120-800 passengers if they refuse to cooperate (air marshals notwithstanding). In the past, before September 2001, the recommendation was to be compliant; since then, a more proactive approach from passengers and crew has become the norm.
Methods, Not Madness
We’ve established our primary security goals and prioritized them. Now…NOW…we can consider how to meet them.
1. Don’t let bad guys on the planes
The “No Fly List” is necessary first step. Fewer issues with it have popped up in the news recently, but that is not an objective measure of its accuracy. While imperfect, it’s a prudent line of defense.
This is were some “Israelification” can help. You insert people into the ticket/luggage flow to look for behaviors of interest. This isn’t the time to pull people aside but just to flag them so that further on in the process the will be more focus on determining, behaviorally, if they are a potential threat. A plus side of this is that security and airline employees will have to engage the travelers in a way that many will perceive as being friendlier.
2. Don’t let bad things on the planes
This is why we needed to establish our goals. We need to know exactly what is a credible threat and what is more imagined. Note that I didn’t say that an imagined threat is impossible. Given the right circumstances, just about any scenario can be effected. The question is: how likely is it to happen?
When you look at airplane hijackings and passenger cabin “incidents”, you don’t find a lot of the sort of scenarios that the TSA seems to think are possible–and I’m not talking just U.S. flights, but global. Many incidents are from disturbed/inebriated individuals who are freaking out in-flight. Many are bluffs (i.e. no actual weapons). A few incidents are cited where there are firearms or explosives, but these are amazingly rare given some of the lax security in many parts of the world.
So, once we’ve clearly established what we’re looking for, we can then define our procedures. Explosive-sniffing dogs are well-established. They can help I.D. people of interest without being overly intrusive to everyone else. Metal detectors and wands are effective in, again, alerting to people who might be of interest. (Explosive-sniffing wands might be useful to have–we should work on that.)
Carry-on bags should be screened as unobtrusively techologically as possible. If there is a place for front-line tech, it’s here. Similarly, checked-in luggage should be thoroughly scanned before there is any consideration of opening a bag (too many bags are opened with contents ending up missing without an explanation other than theft).
At this point, the people who have passed muster and retrieved their pocket items from the tray and their carry-on from the scanner should be on their way (I don’t think it necessary to make removing shoes and many belts S.O.P.). Still, some people will have garnered a flag for further inspection. Most often this will be a carry-on issue and those should then receive a hand-search. If it’s a person, then (and only then) should you have the “nude body scan” or pat-down options employed. Again, we need to be mindful of exactly what’s being looked for and not start giving exams that make doctors blush.
Is it possible that terrorists or even random nut jobs will get through? Yes. Anyone sufficiently motivated is likely to either find a way to subvert the system or simply get lucky. It’s the nature of the beast.
As passengers, we need to be aware of the true risk of things. Is it possible that we could be on a hijacked plane? Yeah, but the odds are high. In 2006, there were about 28 million flights by the airlines worldwide and 3 attempted hijacking (non of U.S. airlines). The average number of hijackings per year in the five-year period from 2002-2006 was 5.6. Think about that. In 2006, around the world there was one hijacking per 9.3 million flights. Those are amazingly good odds: the only event in a list of life events other than a lottery win that even comes close to those odds is being injured by a shark enough to require medical treatment (and we aren’t even talking dying….just injured).
In the end, it’s all about not succumbing to fear. Terrorists are called that because their goal is simply to make people afraid…the thought being that fearful people are less effective as opposition to whatever silly little notion you have in your head.
But despite thoughtful, though not exhaustive, screening; it’s likely that at some point, somewhere, some nut-job will do something nasty with a plane in flight. What is important is to understand that we aren’t perfect and that no system we put in place will be perfect. Sometimes the bad guys will have a momentary victory. This is no cause for us to lose our heads–which is what we’ve been doing for nine years, now.
In 1969, there were 82 hijackings. Eighty-two. In the ten years between 1968 and 1977 there were an average of 41 a year. Did we panic? No. We were mostly annoyed and pissed. We treated these terrorists as unruly children. Now, instead of acting like stern parents, the public and government are more “OMG! OMG! OMG!” It’s embarrassingly obscene how lily-livered we’ve become in such a short amount of time.
Some people think the solution is to privatize the systems already in place–to let the commercial marketplace find the proper level. That is an amazingly awful idea: remember that Blackwater–now Xe Services–was a private security force in Iraq. Look how well that turned out.
I have no love for the TSA, but given the financial shenanigans that have been rocking the U.S. for several years–a consequence of the ideals of the commercial marketplace–I think it best to dance with the devil we know…at least for the time being. Will some terrorist acts occur? Almost certainly, regardless of what security measures we put in place. How we react says so much about us. You don’t project strength from cowering…it just doesn’t happen. The TSA’s methods and implementation don’t exactly fill one with confidence…unless you are a terrorist and you are getting exactly what you want.