The ban against liquids aboard
airplanes, one could say, is the equivalent of closing the barn
door after the horses were caught conspiring to get in. The good
news is that the conspirators were kept out. The bad news: For a
period of time, so was just about everyone else.
The threat of using
liquid explosives to bring down airplanes was not unknown to
authorities before plotters were arrested on Aug. 10; a similar
scenario had been hatched by Filipino terrorists in 1995. Likewise,
officials (and novelists) had imagined that hijacked planes could
be used as missiles to crash into buildings before Sept. 11,
imaginations are as fertile as terrorists', what are we to do to
protect ourselves? When I walk the streets of Manhattan, I see
terror targets everywhere: every high rise, every government
building, every synagogue, every large hotel. More than once, I've
caught myself feeling a bit relieved to have made it safely across
the George Washington Bridge -- found on a list of al Qaeda targets
-- on my commute to and from New Jersey.
security regimen takes us through the procedures that would have
prevented yesterday's successful attacks, but by definition, fall
short of protecting us against tomorrow's.
It's not that
authorities can't imagine what might happen one day, but to prevent
any of myriad imagined scenarios would require millions of
passengers to routinely submit to lengthy, invasive procedures that
would make air travel impractical.
Last week, Ryanair
CEO Michael O'Leary cut to the heart of the matter. After 240 of
his flights were canceled, he said, "Surely, common sense would
suggest that if the safety and security of British citizens is
under threat, why has the government not banned luggage, liquids
and gels on the London Underground or on the Eurotunnel?" He called
on the U.K. government to "return air travel in Britain to
certainly not calling for greater security at the London
Underground, nor is he merely saying the government is being unfair
in singling out airlines for intense security. This airline
executive is saying, in the face of an aborted plot to blow up
commercial airliners, that we've gone beyond a common sense level
of inconvenience for the sake of security.
O'Leary says this
knowing that if 10 airplanes had been blown up over the Atlantic
this summer, the consequences for air travel would have been far
worse than the chaos experienced at British airports after the
thwarted terrorist plot.
The cost of
security vs. the cost of insufficient security can be turned over
in your mind a hundred ways.
For instance, if
someone were to approach you and say, "You must arrive at the
airport 30 minutes earlier than you planned for your flight
tomorrow. If you don't, terrorists will kill thousands of people,"
you would arrive early.
Unless, of course,
you didn't really believe that arriving early would make a
difference. Or, perhaps, you've come to believe there's a point at
which we as a society will have been so changed by fear that the
terrorists will have achieved a real victory, not through the
deaths of individuals but via self-prescribed limitations on our
majority will conclude that we should continue to search for the
right balance among freedom, inconvenience and security. The
alternative is to follow one thread of logic to its extreme, as
humorist Andy Borowitz (www.borowitzreport.com) has done in his
satirical article "FAA Bans People from Flights."
"Let's face it,
hair gel doesn't kill people," he fake-quotes Homeland Security
Secretary Michael Chertoff as saying. "People kill
imagines a happy ending to the banning of passengers from
"Maybe if the
airlines don't have people to worry about," an ersatz industry
expert opines, "they can finally concentrate on getting our luggage
to the right destination."