Judging from the various articles in this Tuesday’s Globe and Mail, there remains a fair amount of confusion, here and elsewhere, about airline security in the wake of the latest terrorist plot. Those of us who are “risk junkies” have been expecting something like what happened on Northwest Flight 253 since early last September – and, we fervently hope, government security officials, especially in the United States, have too, even though they missed Mr. Abdulmutallab.
What’s next? Click “(More…)” below, and let’s do some serious risk management.
On August 28, 2009 a Yemeni-based al-Qaeda operative tried to assassinate the Saudi Arabian deputy minister of the interior with a device similar to the one used in the Christmas Day episode on the Detroit-bound flight. It was bomb made out of the explosive PETN and a chemical fuse and it had passed through the metal-detector screening used by the Saudis; the terrorist killed himself, but not the Saudi official. However, all of the early reports on this incident claimed that the suicide bomber had hidden the explosive inside his anal cavity and detonated it by cellphone; thus, for now, there is some uncertainty about the relation between the methods used in these two incidents.
It’s true that the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, had also used some kind of PETN-based device in late 2001, but it’s likely that the one deployed in 2009 is much more sophisticated and potentially deadly. Thus we might assume that, behind the scenes, U. S. and other Western security officials have been scrambling since late August 2009 to figure out how to head off another airline attack, using some variant of the type of device deployed in Saudi Arabia, but that they had failed to come up with a solution in time. It is also reasonable to assume that Mr. Abdulmutallab may well have succeeded in detonating his device and bringing the plane down, but for the heroic intervention by the Dutch passenger on Flight 253, Jasper Schuringa.
So then the barn door was locked after the fire broke out, which may have been reasonable, under the circumstances, since officials would have had no way of knowing how many terrorists might have been sent on their way, around the same time, carrying similar devices. But any consensus on what should be done next seems to have evaporated since then.
The Globe’s editorial on January 5 expressed a number of pious hopes, to the effect that convenience, cost, human rights, and “the norms of a democracy” can all be harmonized with the implementation of new rounds of adequate security measures. On the same day Margaret Wente delivered one of her typical rants, this one about “our preposterous approach to self-defence” against the terrorist threat which is derived from “our elaborately overdeveloped concern for human rights, combined with our towering fear of the hurt feelings of Muslims.”
Apparently (because her bottom line isn’t clear) she believes that just getting on with profiling Muslims and then stripping and searching all of them, including their bodily cavities, will do the job. Alas, she doesn’t seem to remember the 1986 incident involving Anne Mary Murphy, the very pregnant Irish woman unwittingly sent on board an El Al flight departing Heathrow with semtex explosives and a timed triggering device in her carry-on luggage, put there by her Jordanian fiancé; Israeli security guards discovered the device in time.
What is to be done? For starters, let’s just forget about “convenience and cost,” OK? Because no one in his or her right mind would assign them higher priority than adequate security. Also ignore the unfortunate nonsense spread, in an article in the same issue of the Globe, by the American Civil Liberties Union (an otherwise sensible group), to the effect that “invasive body scanning for all travellers … violate our rights and values.” There are only two good types of solutions for the appropriate risk management of airline travel, namely, technological and behavioural (and a combination of both).
At the moment, in the Western world the technological solution is preferred, and this means moving quickly to the new full-body imaging scanners, as announced by the Canadian government today – presumably a “millimetre wave scanner” (see Wikipedia). The implicit calculation is that these machines can detect the possession, on the body of a person, of anytype of explosive device. However, I can find no explicit statement that this device could also detect something like a PETN-type explosive that was swallowed or inserted into a bodily cavity and intended to be detonated by, e.g., a cellphone, as in the Saudi case. We deserve to receive clear confirmation on this point. (http://www.marketwire.com/press-release/Transport-Canada-1097639.html).
Provided that this technology, used on all travellers, can perform as promised, that is, detect all forms of explosive devices carried on or within a person’s body, then it is adequate to our requirements. If it is deemed too invasive by anyone, on privacy protection grounds, that person is free to travel by bus, train or ship. The cost for obtaining these machines for Canada’s 11 largest airports is said to be$11 million, that is, trivial. And unless it can be conclusively demonstrated that a full-body “pat-down” is exactly equivalent in terms of effectiveness, there should be no exceptions permitted to going through the scanner.
But increasing attention is being paid to Israel’s well-established practice of elaborate “behavioural screening” of all El Al passengers through long interview protocols, in addition to careful baggage screening. Today’s Transport Canada announcement also stated, “the Government of Canada will soon issue a request for proposal for passenger behaviour observation for passenger screening at major Canadian airports. Passenger behaviour observation screening consists of focusing on the passengers exhibiting suspicious behaviour, which could be an involuntary response to a fear of being discovered.”
However, this sounds suspiciously like a typical Canadian government half-hearted measure designed more to reassure the public than to do the job. Observation of people milling about in airports is a far cry from the intensive one-on-one grilling of individual passengers used in the Israeli system, which is, of course, time-consuming for travellers but appears to work.
If this is regarded by anyone as an unacceptable form of “profiling,” even “racial profiling,” as is said of the Israeli system, then the solution is to avoid airports at all cost. To be sure, an intensive screening method of each type only avoids fundamental unfairness if it applies equally to everyone. But this principle is also pragmatically justified. The recent U. S. measures requiring enhanced screening of citizens from specific countries violates this principle; it is a thoughtless overreaction typical of the U. S. system in recent years, and will be ineffectual, because the terrorist leadership now knows in more detail how to screen its own suicide bomber volunteers.
What is the bottom line for Canadians? If the new technology can fulfill its stated promise, then it should provide an adequate level of security and be cost-effective as well as convenient. If an honest appraisal of present threats should suggest, however, that it should be combined with a more rigorous form of behavioural screening, then there is little doubt that Canadian travellers would find it to be advantageous to them and to be neither excessively costly nor unacceptably inconvenient. Air travel will never again be as it was before September 2001, and we’ll just have to get used to that fact.