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[ISN] The Airport Security Follies


By Patrick Smith
Jet Lagged - nytimes.com
December 28, 2007

Six years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, airport security remains 
a theater of the absurd. The changes put in place following the 
September 11th catastrophe have been drastic, and largely of two kinds: 
those practical and effective, and those irrational, wasteful and 

The first variety have taken place almost entirely behind the scenes. 
Explosives scanning for checked luggage, for instance, was long overdue 
and is perhaps the most welcome addition. Unfortunately, at concourse 
checkpoints all across America, the madness of passenger screening 
continues in plain view. It began with pat-downs and the senseless 
confiscation of pointy objects. Then came the mandatory shoe removal, 
followed in the summer of 2006 by the prohibition of liquids and gels. 
We can only imagine what is next.

To understand what makes these measures so absurd, we first need to 
revisit the morning of September 11th, and grasp exactly what it was the 
19 hijackers so easily took advantage of. Conventional wisdom says the 
terrorists exploited a weakness in airport security by smuggling aboard 
box-cutters. What they actually exploited was a weakness in our mindset 
a set of presumptions based on the decades-long track record of 

In years past, a takeover meant hostage negotiations and standoffs; 
crews were trained in the concept of passive resistance. All of that 
changed forever the instant American Airlines Flight 11 collided with 
the north tower. What weapons the 19 men possessed mattered little; the 
success of their plan relied fundamentally on the element of surprise. 
And in this respect, their scheme was all but guaranteed not to fail.

For several reasons particularly the awareness of passengers and crew 
just the opposite is true today. Any hijacker would face a planeload of 
angry and frightened people ready to fight back. Say what you want of 
terrorists, they cannot afford to waste time and resources on schemes 
with a high probability of failure. And thus the September 11th template 
is all but useless to potential hijackers.

No matter that a deadly sharp can be fashioned from virtually anything 
found on a plane, be it a broken wine bottle or a snapped-off length of 
plastic, we are content wasting billions of taxpayer dollars and untold 
hours of labor in a delusional attempt to thwart an attack that has 
already happened, asked to queue for absurd lengths of time, subject to 
embarrassing pat-downs and loss of our belongings.

The folly is much the same with respect to the liquids and gels 
restrictions, introduced two summers ago following the breakup of a 
London-based cabal that was planning to blow up jetliners using liquid 
explosives. Allegations surrounding the conspiracy were revealed to 
substantially embellished. In an August, 2006 article in the New York 
Times, British officials admitted that public statements made following 
the arrests were overcooked, inaccurate and unfortunate. The plots 
leaders were still in the process of recruiting and radicalizing 
would-be bombers. They lacked passports, airline tickets and, most 
critical of all, they had been unsuccessful in actually producing liquid 
explosives. Investigators later described the widely parroted report 
that up to ten U.S airliners had been targeted as speculative and 

Among first to express serious skepticism about the bombers readiness 
was Thomas C. Greene, whose essay in The Register explored the extreme 
difficulty of mixing and deploying the types of binary explosives 
purportedly to be used. Green conferred with Professor Jimmie C. Oxley, 
an explosives specialist who has closely studied the type of deadly 
cocktail coveted by the London plotters.

The notion that deadly explosives can be cooked up in an airplane 
lavatory is pure fiction, Greene told me during an interview. A handy 
gimmick for action movies and shows like 24. The reality proves 
disappointing: its rather awkward to do chemistry in an airplane toilet. 
Nevertheless, our official protectors and deciders respond to such 
notions instinctively, because theyre familiar to us: weve all seen 
scenarios on television and in the cinema. This, incredibly, is why you 
can no longer carry a bottle of water onto a plane.

The threat of liquid explosives does exist, but it cannot be readily 
brewed from the kinds of liquids we have devoted most of our resources 
to keeping away from planes. Certain benign liquids, when combined under 
highly specific conditions, are indeed dangerous. However, creating 
those conditions poses enormous challenges for a saboteur.

I would not hesitate to allow that liquid explosives can pose a danger, 
Greene added, recalling Ramzi Yousefs 1994 detonation of a small 
nitroglycerine bomb aboard Philippine Airlines Flight 434. The explosion 
was a test run for the so-called Project Bojinka, an Al Qaeda scheme to 
simultaneously destroy a dozen widebody airliners over the Pacific 
Ocean. But the idea that confiscating someones toothpaste is going to 
keep us safe is too ridiculous to entertain.

Yet thats exactly what weve been doing. The three-ounce container rule 
is silly enough after all, whats to stop somebody from carrying several 
small bottles each full of the same substance but consider for a moment 
the hypocrisy of T.S.A.s confiscation policy. At every concourse 
checkpoint youll see a bin or barrel brimming with contraband containers 
taken from passengers for having exceeded the volume limit. Now, the 
assumption has to be that the materials in those containers are 
potentially hazardous. If not, why were they seized in the first place? 
But if so, why are they dumped unceremoniously into the trash? They are 
not quarantined or handed over to the bomb squad; they are simply thrown 
away. The agency seems to be saying that it knows these things are 
harmless. But its going to steal them anyway, and either you accept it 
or you dont fly.

But of all the contradictions and self-defeating measures T.S.A. has 
come up with, possibly none is more blatantly ludicrous than the policy 
decreeing that pilots and flight attendants undergo the same x-ray and 
metal detector screening as passengers. What makes it ludicrous is that 
tens of thousands of other airport workers, from baggage loaders and 
fuelers to cabin cleaners and maintenance personnel, are subject only to 
occasional random screenings when they come to work.

These are individuals with full access to aircraft, inside and out. Some 
are airline employees, though a high percentage are contract staff 
belonging to outside companies. The fact that crew members, many of whom 
are former military fliers, and all of whom endured rigorous background 
checks prior to being hired, are required to take out their laptops and 
surrender their hobby knives, while a caterer or cabin cleaner sidesteps 
the entire process and walks onto a plane unimpeded, nullifies almost 
everything our T.S.A. minders have said and done since September 11th, 
2001. If there is a more ringing let-me-get-this-straight scenario 
anywhere in the realm of airport security, Id like to hear it.

Im not suggesting that the rules be tightened for non-crew members so 
much as relaxed for all accredited workers. Which perhaps urges us to 
reconsider the entire purpose of airport security:

The truth is, regardless of how many pointy tools and shampoo bottles we 
confiscate, there shall remain an unlimited number of ways to smuggle 
dangerous items onto a plane. The precise shape, form and substance of 
those items is irrelevant. We are not fighting materials, we are 
fighting the imagination and cleverness of the would-be saboteur.

Thus, what most people fail to grasp is that the nuts and bolts of 
keeping terrorists away from planes is not really the job of airport 
security at all. Rather, its the job of government agencies and law 
enforcement. Its not very glamorous, but the grunt work of hunting down 
terrorists takes place far off stage, relying on the diligent work of 
cops, spies and intelligence officers. Air crimes need to be stopped at 
the planning stages. By the time a terrorist gets to the airport, 
chances are its too late.

In the end, Im not sure which is more troubling, the inanity of the 
existing regulations, or the average Americans acceptance of them and 
willingness to be humiliated. These wasteful and tedious protocols have 
solidified into what appears to be indefinite policy, with little or no 
opposition. There ought to be a tide of protest rising up against this 
mania. Where is it? At its loudest, the voice of the traveling public is 
one of grumbled resignation. The op-ed pages are silent, the pundits 
have nothing meaningful to say.

The airlines, for their part, are in something of a bind. The 
willingness of our carriers to allow flying to become an increasingly 
unpleasant experience suggests a business sense of masochistic 
capitulation. On the other hand, imagine the outrage among security 
zealots should airlines be caught lobbying for what is perceived to be a 
dangerous abrogation of security and responsibility even if its not. 
Carriers caught plenty of flack, almost all of it unfair, in the 
aftermath of September 11th. Understandably, they no longer want that 

As for Americans themselves, I suppose that its less than realistic to 
expect street protests or airport sit-ins from citizen fliers, and maybe 
we shouldnt expect too much from a press and media that have had no 
trouble letting countless other injustices slip to the wayside. And 
rather than rethink our policies, the best weve come up with is a way to 
skirt them for a fee, naturally via schemes like Registered Traveler. 
Americans can now pay to have their personal information put on file 
just to avoid the hassle of airport security. As cynical as George 
Orwell ever was, I doubt he imagined the idea of citizens offering up 
money for their own subjugation.

How we got to this point is an interesting study in reactionary 
politics, fear-mongering and a disconcerting willingness of the American 
public to accept almost anything in the name of security. Conned and 
frightened, our nation demands not actual security, but security 
spectacle. And although a reasonable percentage of passengers, along 
with most security experts, would concur such theater serves no useful 
purpose, there has been surprisingly little outrage. In that regard, 
maybe weve gotten exactly the system we deserve.


Patrick Smith, a commercial airline pilot, is the author of Salon.coms 
weekly Ask the Pilot air travel column; his book of the same name was 
published in 2004. He lives near Boston.

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