Monday, January 4, 2010

Airplane security and the Christmas bombing attempt

Just back from a plane trip out of the country. Our flight featured two unusual security steps that were visible: every passenger was patted down just before boarding, and no one could bring anything to drink onto the plane, even bottles of water purchased inside security. The first was quick and seemed worth the time. The second seemed arbitrary, and was certainly uncomfortable, since it took two hours for water to reach our row on the plane!

Perhaps what's most striking about the current increase in security is how incomplete our ability to connect the dots evidently is. The information we had about the Nigerian would-be bomber seems, in hindsight, so obviously frightening that our not reacting to it with quick action is hard to understand -- unless, of course, we receive so many worrying bits of information each day that reacting to all the possibly dramatic link-ups would be impossible. Whether the problem was bureaucratic fumbling or information overload, however, it's clear that we don't believe that we can identify all our assailants in advance. It's because we don't believe we can do this that we impose on ourselves the massive inconveniences of airport security.

Of course, it could be that our connect-the-dots security measures are very, very good -- but we have to supplement them with airport security measures because a single failure would be catastrophic. I hope that is the case, but it doesn't feel like it is. Witness the decision to subject everyone from Nigeria to heightened search. Obviously this step is tremendously, deliberately, overinclusive. The week's news suggests that our reason for taking it is that we can't get a clear idea of which Nigerians are actually threats even when we have specific information about an individual named Nigerian. Profiling is never a welcome step, but if we really are as in the dark as this event suggests, then we need something to shed some light on what we face.

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