Doing The Wrong Things

Full (and obvious) caveats here that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a defense/national security/terrorism expert, as well as the old saw that hindsight is 20/20. But DANG, isn’t there anyone with enough sense to pour piss out of a boot at TSA, or the NSC, or whatever group oversees our reaction to existing and emerging terrorist threats? Everyone talks about what a tough thing it is to get the balance right between maintaining liberties and safeguarding ourselves against terrorism…but lately, it almost seems that no one’s even trying.

Everyone acknowledges that we dodged a bullet (or, more precisely, a bomb) on Christmas day, and that only dumb luck, inexperience on the bomber’s part, and the quick thinking and bravery of some of the passengers prevented a tragedy. Given that we can all agree on those facts as a starting point, it’s disheartening to see just how abysmal the handling of this matter has been and continues to be.

Consider these recently-disclosed facts which went completely ignored prior to Christmas:

  • U.S. authorities failed to put Abdulmutallab on the no-fly list or revoke his American visa even after being told by his father in November that the son was being radicalized in the al Qaeda hotbed of Yemen, officials in Washington told ABC News. Abdulmutallab’s name was only added to a “catch-all” watch list that did not prevent him from boarding a U.S.-bound airplane. American authorities failed to put Abdulmutallab on the no-fly list or revoke his American visa because they determined that the information provided by his father was “insufficient” and non-specific…
  • Yemeni officials said they were never approached by American authorities seeking information about Abdulmutallab, who was in their government computer lists of foreign visitors, according to the country’s foreign minister.
  • Abdulmutallab paid cash for his ticket and traveled with no luggage to Detroit
  • Abdulmutallab had been denied a visa to the United Kingdom after using the name of a non-existent school and was prohibited from flying on U.K.-bound planes.
  • Abdulmutallab did not go through any of the available body scan screening devices in Amsterdam because airport officials claimed they did not have approval from America authorities to use them on U.S.-bound passengers.

Again, not an expert here…but shouldn’t the whole “one-way ticket to another country, no luggage, paid in cash” thing have gotten together with the “his own father called up and said ‘watch out for my son'” thing and resulted in something more than it did? Why in heck are we not allowing other countries to body-scan passengers on flights from their airports to ours? Who knows?

However, we DO have the reassurance of knowing that our government is doing something. I just wish they were the right things:

For all U.S.-bound aircraft originating in a foreign country (this also includes Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands), passengers will not be able to leave their seat approximately one hour prior to landing. There will be no public address announcements regarding the position of the aircraft, or landing announcements.

And remember your one carry-on item allowed? You cannot access it during the one-hour period prior to landing. This also includes magazines, newspapers, books, and personal electronic devices during the one hour pre-landing period. All pillows and blankets will be collected one hour prior to landing. Flight crews are being told to stow the blankets and pillows in the galleys, not in the overhead compartments. And all onboard IFE (in-flight entertainment) systems will be disabled (these are the systems that usually show the electronic map on the screens and the aircraft position).

That ain’t all, either, though this article didn’t mention it in these paragraphs; apparently, passengers aboard commercial aircraft will not be allowed to operate electronic devices, either.

So, to review: we DON’T follow up leads from people intimately acquainted with family or friends they describe as “dangerous,” we DON’T allow foreign governments to use body-scan devices on passengers on planes with destinations in the USA, and we DON’T raise any red flags for single men travelling alone to the US who paid in cash for a one-way ticket. But after one such person does in fact turn out to have been a terrorist (go figure) who tried to detonate a bomb by injecting a liquid into a powder (all non-electronically), we DO keep passengers from leaving their seats for the last hour of the flight (why not the first hour? Or the third? Or the entire flight?), we DO prevent them from using electronic devices (sorry, kids, no Nintendo DS or DVD player – and sorry to Mom, too – oh, and no laptop work, all you business-class travelers), and we DO prevent travelers from going to the bathroom during the last hour of the flight, too.


As John Cole over at Balloon Juice wondered, will they also…

…ban toothbrushes, women named Ruth, and make all passengers remove their left lens from their corrective eyewear?

Why the hell not? Makes about as much sense as what they’re already doing…and it’d probably piss off fewer people not named Ruth.

2 thoughts on “Doing The Wrong Things

  1. Spencer makes a number of good points. And the hysteria with which this has been greeted in the pants-wetting fever-swamps of wingnuttia is definitely unrealistic. Fire Napolitano? For what? The equation hasn’t really changed at all: it’s still a balancing act between preserving individual liberties and protecting travelers from harm from terrorism. Unless we wish to go the route of El-Al in Israel, there is always going to be a chance that a terrorist attack here or there might happen. That’s a tough political sell, though: coming before the people in the wake of a barely-failed attack and saying “you know, some of these things are always going to have the chance of getting through and accomplishing their goal.” People would likely freak out.

    However, taking reasonable precautions which are neither prohibitively expensive or overly burdensome on passengers and which are effective, is still the way to go. So, when we consider whether to institute a new regulation, we need to consider whether it meets these criteria. And that’s my biggest problem with what happened (and didn’t happen) surrounding the Fruit-of-the-Loom bomber: things that should have happened, didn’t, and in response, things that won’t particularly help are being enacted. My biggest problems with the specifics of the Christmas bomber was the “single male, flying alone, paid cash, no luggage on an international flight.” That ALONE should raise major red flags. Who else does that, honestly? Some of the other things which might have been a good idea (body scans, better cooperation between anti-terror agencies, different screening of data, etc.) are arguably harder or more burdensome or even not immediately feasible to implement. But when it raises no apparent alarms that a single Muslim man in traditional garb traveling alone pays for a ticket on an international flight in cash and then declares no luggage, you have to wonder what other obvious steps aren’t being taken that should be?

    Similarly, just because this particular bomber chose the last hour of the flight he happened to be on to attempt to detonate his explosives, why does it makes sense to force all passengers on all U.S.-bound international flights to remain in their seats for a full hour? Many – if not most – of the new restrictions do little or nothing to actually increase safety (i.e. – they’re easy to circumvent or avoid if one actually IS a terrorist), and a great deal to increase the burden on everyday travelers. Hence: doing the wrong things (and apparently NOT doing some of the most obviously RIGHT ones).

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