Unless you are Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s elderly grandmother, chances are you have already heard about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s attempt to detonate explosives on Northwest Airlines Flight 253 as it approached Detroit on Christmas day. First of all, in order to save time and space, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab will henceforth be referred to as the Underwear Bomber. Second of all, in order to save American lives, a man with a GED will henceforth put his finger in your anus every time you fly on a plane. Does that sound like a demeaning invasion of your privacy? Well, do you want to live? Okay, then, let me just get a fresh latex sheath and…we’re in. Enjoy your flight!
Adjusted for intro-paragraph hyperbole, that’s the essential position of William Saletan over at Slate, who argues that concern over new full-body security scanners is misplaced and the TSA is doing a heckuva job. Apparently working with a team of gifted and talented fourteen year-old boys, the TSA has developed a scanner that renders all the contours of your body as if you were not wearing any clothes. Once the image is rendered, “somebody who works for TSA will study the picture, including your gonads,” writes Saletan. “They’ll study your gonads because that’s where bombers hide bombs.”
Presumably, Saletan means that bombers hide bombs in their gonads. He points out the the Underwear Bomber is not called the Clean, Dry Duffle Bag Bomber because he hid his explosives in the place security personnel are least inclined to look. Once the TSA installs these gonad scanners in every airport, the bombers will have to hide explosives in their rectums, at which point the TSA will have to develop a means of looking at everyone’s rectums. “Security is a constant arms race against innovative malefactors,” Saletan writes. “By pursuing them in Afghanistan and Pakistan, you force them to Yemen. By tracking their cell phones, you force them to use couriers. By hunting them with drones in the mountains, you force them into cities. You can’t stop them, but you can cripple them and keep them off balance.” All of this, he argues, is worth it to save lives—especially the lives of children, whom Saletan evokes repeatedly in his column. That’s the mark of an airtight logical argument: it involves a lot of children.
As enticing as Saletan’s vision of a never-ending arms race between progressively more invasive security measures and progressively more degraded bombers may seem, there is another approach to the situation. In a terrific short piece at Gizmodo, Joel Johnson points out that A) you’re more likely to be struck by lightning than blown up on a plane and B) the TSA spends millions of dollars and countless person-hours to screen for tactics that terrorists don’t use anymore. Since September 11th, the TSA has thwarted exactly zero terrorist attacks. It has, however, repeatedly rejiggered its policies in response to attacks that it failed to stop—and which, in turn, fizzled on their own. Remember the Shoe Bomber Richard Reid? There’s a kid in Guantanamo Bay with badly burned genitals who does. Under the TSA, the security screening process has become an assemblage of increasingly cumbersome reactions to techniques that terrorists failed to blow up planes with once and haven’t been caught trying since. If the “system works perfectly,” as Janet Napolitano so unwisely remarked, then what would a nonworking system look like?
Perhaps, for starters, it would use a little intelligence. Before we invest further billions of dollars in searching for explosives, knives and nail clippers on each of the over 2 million people who fly every day, maybe we should remember that the Underwear Bomber’s dad called us and said he was up to something like a month ago. Granted, most terrorists are probably not being so closely monitored by their parents. Still, the collected security apparatuses of the Department of Homeland Security proved unable to stop a bomber when they had been warned about him by telephone in advance. Are more thorough searches and better information gathering really going to fix that?
More elaborate airport screening, hopefully abetted by some sort of magical new technology, isn’t the solution to this problem. It’s just the easiest thing to think of. Given its track record, the TSA functions primarily as a means of making us feel like we’re doing something. Even in that capacity, it’s woefully inadequate. The one thing Saletan and Johson agree on is that terrorists are going to get bombs onto planes, one way or another. While Saletan seems committed to a system by which those bombs have to be transported in ever-more inconvenient ways, Johnson points out that the only things that have made air travel safer since 9/11 are reinforced cockpit doors and more vigilant passengers. While he was in the process of burning his feet, Richard Reid was overpowered by a former football player sitting across the aisle. The September 11th hijackers used box cutters to commandeer their planes. Could they frighten a hundred passengers into submission with box cutters now?
The TSA seems determined to spend whatever money it takes to protect us from shoes, gels, nail clippers, box cutters and underwear. If the boys in Yemen can come up with a way to hurt people that doesn’t involve one of those five things, we’re on our own. The lines and uniforms and constant, low-level panic at security sure seem impressive. Still, shuffling forward in our stocking feet, waiting for a digital image of our genitals to appear for inspection on a computer screen, it’s hard not to think that there must be a better way.