I just started listening to the audiobook of Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six. The opening scene involves an airline hijacking. I didn’t need to look up the date to know that it was written before 9/11. The protagonist of the book is CIA Agent John Clark, who happens to be on a plane getting hijacked. I knew instantly that it was written before 9/11 because we enter Clark’s mind and nearly every thought he had was refuted just a few years after it was written. The best thing to do in the event of a hijacking is to sit still (Clark ultimately doesn’t, owing to special circumstances). Smart and capable terrorists don’t hijack planes. Just do what they say, keep your head down, and let the professionals do their job. That was, up until 9/10/01, the conventional wisdom.
Frequent Hit Coffee commenter Peter often criticizes the fliers on the planes from 9/11 for not having risen up as those on United 93 did. I give them a pass for the above reason. It’s difficult to imagine, however, anything approaching that level of compliance in the near-decade since. We’ve learned that the worst thing they can do is not blow up the plane, but rather turn it into a weapon. In which case, not only do you (and everyone on the plane) die, but so do a whole lot of other people (and a nation goes into chaos). Combine that with the reinforced cockpit doors, and while we may have reason to fear terrorism, another 9/11 is not likely to happen no matter what they get on the plane.
I think of this as we deal with the TSA’s new policies. Many on the right are outraged and view this as a manifestation of creeping tyranny, but in many ways it’s simply the next logical step in a walk started by Obama’s predecessor. To be fair, many on the right admit this. Many others argue that this is why we need profiling and the like*. Some argue that we need security like the Israelis have. Many on the left, formerly outraged by the TSA policies when Bush was in charge, argue that these safety measures are required for the public safety (and all argue that profiling is not the way to go about it). To be fair, many on the left are as outraged with Obama as they would be with Bush.
On this debate, I sit on the sidelines, more-or-less. I look at the Israeli system as being non-scalable (Israel has conscription and relatively few airports), exceedingly expensive, and intrusive in a different way. Profiling I view as perhaps effective but something to be avoided. I view the scanners and pat-downs as a few steps too far. Whenever I do mention this, with the exception of some libertarians and ACLU types, I get “Well, how should we keep our airports secure?!”
But really, how secure do we need them to be? There are a lot worse things that terrorists can do than blow up a plane. I’m not saying that it wouldn’t be noteworthy and tragic, but the real tragedy occurred because of what they did with the planes. And at some point, you have to look at the relative safety of flying versus driving and say “some risks you’ve got to take.”
Beyond which, I hope that they keep trying to hijack planes. Jokes about TSA incompetence aside, it’s an iffy target at best as most potential targets don’t have the kind of security that we had before 9/11 and hijacking as a method of terrorism was, as John Clark noted, on the decline**. I can’t imagine anything worse than that they bypass airplanes and get creative. They could bomb a levy. Another WTC-style bomb attempt (except, obviously, somewhere else). Murray Federal Building except a bigger target. Or worse yet, they could attempt death by a thousand drops. A man and a boy with a sniper rifle shut down an entire city. A few anthrax letters had the entire US on its heels***. Bomb a bus here, a market there, and they could do some real damage. Not necessarily in the form of a casualty toll, but a psychological one. And that’s what’s really important.
The psychological toll is, perhaps, what the TSA is trying to prevent on planes. I doubt that they haven’t considered what I’ve said above. I’m sure their response would be to imagine the psychological toll of another actual (successful) hijacking. People won’t want to fly. It’s a fair point, but in some ways I think the psychological effect of security theater is worse. They think it screams “Trust us. You’re safe.” but as much as anything I would say that it suggests the opposite. Particularly as they have to justify these procedures and inform us of any and every way that they could hide a Play-to bomb up their arsecrack. The cynical part of me thinks precisely that instilling fear, rather than concern for future fear, is the point. But I guess I’m not that cynical.
* - I was looking for a way not to bring up this word, but I know if I don’t then someone else will. Keep in mind that I am not arguing that this form of security is better than that form of security. Rather, I am arguing that we are too obsessed with security to begin with whether we’re contemplating inconveniencing everyone a little or inconveniencing certain demographics a lot.
** - Prior to 9/11, I struggle to find any flights originating in the US that were hijacked in 20 years. There was an interesting attempt, however, in 1994.
*** - I am reminded of how the band Anthrax hired a letter-opener because, as they put it, “we do not intend to die an ironic death.” Quote of the decade, easily.