Friday, August 11, 2006

Coming Soon: Toddler Terrorists!

So, in the aftermath of the exposure of the terror plot to use liquid explosives to blow up as many as 10 planes, the Transportation Security Administration is banning all liquids and gels in carry-on luggage. Now, "everything from bottled water to coffee to common toiletries like contact-lens solution, nail polish and toothpaste now must be checked. Even beverages bought beyond the security checkpoint are forbidden on board. If you buy a soda or a bottle of water in the terminal, finish it before boarding because you will not be allowed on the plane with it." The UK has gone even farther:

passengers traveling to the United States must endure trans-Atlantic flights without iPods, personal DVD players and computers to distract them. Only essential items like passports and wallets held in transparent plastic bags are allowed in the cabin. Passengers are not permitted to carry anything in their pockets, and women’s handbags may not be carried on.

The British also banned carry-on liquids, from apple juice to whiskey; passengers had to check their liquid prescription medicine and contact-lens solution yesterday. Women’s sanitary items were allowed in the cabin, but only if they were removed from their boxes.

Tony Cane, a spokesman for British Airways, said reading material also could be affected. He said the airline had advised travelers to put books in checked luggage.

Do these new rules make anyone any safer? I go back and forth over how much of a threat terrorism is to the US. Sometimes, I see it as a serious problem that threatens to undermine the fabric of life in a free and open democratic society. Other times, I realize that more people in the US die each year from food-borne illnesses than have died from terror attacks in the last 15 years combined. Where this leaves me vis-a-vis homeland security is that I believe increased security measures can be warranted, when the cost is sufficiently low and the value-added is sufficiently high.

Do the new bans on liquids meet those criteria? No.

First, note that:

The liquid and gel ban has exceptions. Baby formula and medicine are allowed, provided that passengers present them for inspection and are prepared to prove that the name on the bottle matches the name on their ticket. That does not mean passengers will be required to taste baby formula to prove that it is not really a hazardous liquid, as was the case in Britain yesterday.
I guess terrorists aren't smart enough to bring their babies on board and disguise explosives as formula.

This is the same problem as with IDs: people who appear to be minors aren't required to provide a government-issued ID when they board. People under 18 don't always have driver's licenses or other ID; so when they travel they don't have ID. My wife's daughter is 16...she doesn't yet have a driver's license, and when she travels they just let her on, sometimes at my wife's or my assurance, sometimes, if she's traveling alone, without it. Either way, are terrorists really not sufficiently smart to figure this out and use teenagers? A teenager with a kid would be a double whammy: No ID needed and can carry on "formula."

When you see security gaps like this there is one most likely explanation: The regulation is more about reassuring a jittery public and conveying a image of a government in control of the situation than about plugging a security hole. And that means the regulation is not likely to be worth the cost.

If the screening of carry-on luggage is so problematic, then carry-on luggage should just be banned all together. Or, as I think Thomas Friedman once suggested, we should just all fly naked.

But, half-assed measures like this don't really provide serious security. Hopefully, these measures will only be temporary ones, intended to calm jangled nerves, and will soon be lifted, like the moronic ban on nail clippers. We need to focus on real security needs, like scanners that can detect liquid explosives, rather than making our lives miserable for no appreciable increase in our safety.

1 comment:

Sherwinsky said...

Have youb checked this out?