The Issue In the wake of the failed Christmas Day terrorist attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253, is stepping up airport security the best way to ensure that Americans are safe?
Safety. At its most extreme, it’s an idea that few would oppose: freedom from harm. But in a world of trade-offs, it’s something that comes at a price.
We pronounce some things “safe” despite obvious risks because we balance an activity’s cost or danger against its potential to enrich our lives. This is why few ever worry about being struck by lightning. With a remote probability of 1 in 2,650,000, it isn’t worth a second thought. Driving is so advantageous that millions willingly take the risk when they get on the road.
Unfortunately, emotions often inhibit our ability to make this kind of cost-benefit analysis. Sometimes, that’s a good thing. When hope keeps a cause alive despite stacked odds, we find ourselves drawn to such audacity.
Fear, in contrast, rarely warrants such admiration. When gripped by fear, we choose actions based upon how well they alleviate our fear, not whether they actually make us safer.
Terrorists exploit this vulnerability. They aim to drive fear into a population until it acquiesces to absurd demands. Through terrorism, they equalize immense power differentials, allowing desert warriors to influence the most powerful nation on earth.
Our reaction to the near tragedy of Flight 253 betrays our willingness to sacrifice in the name of emotion. USA Today reported that 78 percent of passengers now support digital strip searches in the form of full-body scanners. If logic were their primary motivator, one must reasonably conclude that flying is incredibly dangerous.
Despite the expectation, however, FiveThirtyEight.com calculated that the probability of being in a terrorist attack to be 1 in 10,408,947. Based on this statistic, it appears that the national obsession with security is driven by fear. After all, we don’t mandate precautions for comparatively common lightning strikes.
But for all the precautions now in airports, no attempt has been made to determine whether extra security translates to safety. According to the British Medical Journal, no comprehensive study has evaluated the effectiveness of airport security. Since 9/11, airport security has not thwarted a major attack. It may have deterred some potential terrorists, but, even so, it does not eliminate the threat of terrorism. If anything, it simply changed where our enemies strike.
Terrorists are remarkably adept at exploiting flaws in existing security. It is possible to plug some gaps, but rather than react to terrorist innovations, we would be better served striking al Qaeda’s leaders and fortifying intelligence agencies. What good are billions of dollars more in airport security if al Qaeda starts targeting highway infrastructure? How about trains?
To that end, the adaptive nature of intelligence agencies makes them best suited to provide effective security. In addition, they can predict where the next strike will come. According to the Heritage Foundation, of 23 major terrorist plots planned since 9/11, not one was foiled by the Transportation Security Administration.
Devices the TSA cites to justify its existence — watch bombs, liquid bombs and other concealed explosives — have all been discovered by intelligence agencies. For all the long security lines, the TSA has never met the challenge of detecting these devices. Given the agency’s recent performance in Newark Airport, I question whether they’re even capable of doing so.
They do, however, make us feel more secure. As passengers noted in USA Today, new security measures, like full-body scanners, would put them “more at ease [when] getting on a plane.”
But we shouldn’t trade privacy for the mere feeling of security.
For those who need peace of mind, an effective last line of defense was created long ago: reinforced cockpit doors. Passengers, too, compose a vital line of defense. In the post-9/11 world, they have been the first responders. Had the passengers on all the 9/11 flights known, as those on Flight 93 did, what their captors planned, the Twin Towers would likely still be a part of the Manhattan skyline.
Our country is more than just a shape on a map; it stands for something: freedom. Part of that freedom is a right to privacy, a right that would be violated by more stringent security measures. No matter what we do, there will be people who hate us for our ideals. No matter how much we emphasize security, there will always be risk. If we are willing to give up freedom just to fool ourselves, to use a cliché, the terrorists win.
John Scrudato is a junior in Morse College.