Monday, January 4, 2010

Targeting Weapons Not Ideas

The unsurprising reaction to the Christmas Day (attempted) bombing has been more restrictions on travel, more troops in a relatively innocent Middle Eastern country, and generally more of the same. Obama, how you've failed us.

Since this marks now the third attempted terrorist attack on a plane since 9/11 which managed to only be thwarted by passengers, people are asking once again how can the TSA prevent would-be terrorists from bringing various explosives on board. There's quite a precedent for this sort of recoiling in the face of an utter failure of a terrorist act - the Shoe Bomber nearly caused matches and lighters to be more strictly controlled, and the London-based cell that attempted to create a lethal chemicals in the lavatory famously caused the ban on liquids (with varying forms, from either all liquids being banned as in parts of Europe, to the lighter American ban that restricts passengers to only three ounce containers). So what exactly are the recommended changes this time around? Well, according to one expert:
There are two machines that might -- and I say might -- have revealed the old bomb in the underwear ploy. One is the machine, which we encountered in the airport in Paris and is in a few airports in the US, that puffs air at you and analyzes the atmosphere for chemical residue. The other one is the X-ray machine, which was very controversial in the US for the prudish reason that it showed the faint outline of genitalia.
Are we honestly reaching the point where essentially strip-searching people is being debated? Both are fairly invasive procedures, and yes I've been subjected to both while flying in the United States. The ultimate irony is that the paragraph a few lines above this intense search for methods to prevent terrorist suspects from bringing dangerous chemicals or devices onto planes, the same expert mentioned that:
And yet, what we have so far is incredibly expensive and cumbersome security procedures that can be easily circumvented by your average Joe Terrorist. I have always wondered, for example, how metal detectors would respond to explosives made of plastic. Answer? They don't. I have also wondered why, since it is well known that one must remove one's shoes at airport, any terrorist would put explosives in his or her shoe. Answer? They don't: they sew the bomb in their underwear.
Truly what we have here is a failure of the imagination with this expert specifically and on almost every party in this debate generally - humans solve puzzles naturally, what we need to target is the motivation, not the ultimate action. That isn't to suggest that we resort to criminalizing the idea of terrorism (to an extent that's already happened, it seems), but that we should attempt preventative measures that start before people board planes - that start with addressing why such a large percentage of the Muslim world is so angry at Americans and the West. This isn't, as that expert says, "cooperation and meekness in the face of jihadi fanaticism," this is actually addressing the problem instead of ignoring the conflict and preventing it from affecting Americans outside of airport security.

Obama's landmark speech earlier this year to the Islamic world seemed to be the end of a long violent campaign against Muslim nations, and the beginning of a dialogue and a constructive solution. Hopefully this single failed attack won't break the nascent reconciliation and boost the chances of a war in Yemen.