Tag Archives: terrorism

TSA Gropes 8-Year Old Boy

He could have been a terrorist, you see.

TSA’s High Failure Rate Is the Least of its Problems

TSA scanners miss as many as 70 percent of banned items that passengers bring to security checkpoints, by some estimates.

The TSA’s PR staff is taking issue with the figures, but isn’t bothering to put out its own numbers.

The Economist points out:

Surely if TSA screeners were doing much better in covert testing, the agency would be eager to release the data. That hasn’t happened. You don’t have to be a cynic to think that the current, unreleased numbers might not be quite as impressive as the agency would like.

Also worth pointing out – there has not been a single successful terrorist attack even with all the contraband that makes it onto airplanes. This is because terrorism is rare. It just doesn’t cost very many lives compared to other threats.

These greater threats include automobile crashes (40,000 deaths per year), heart disease (616,067 deaths in 2009), and cancer (562,875 deaths in 2009). Terrorist attacks, on the other hand, are twenty times rarer than deaths by lightning strikes.

If policymakers were rational, they would give twenty times more attention to lightning strike prevention than to terrorism. But they aren’t, and they don’t. That means the TSA’s $8.1 billion budget, by using up resources that would save more lives elsewhere, will continue to cost more lives than it saves for the foreseeable future.

The Terrorists Win Again

The Arlington, Virginia Metro stop that services the Pentagon was shut down this morning because of a suspicious object. Passengers in the station were forced to go out into the cold and find some other way to get to work. The incident caused delays up and down the Metro’s Blue Line.

The troubles began at about 7:15 am when someone spotted a blinking item inside a trash can and reported it to authorities. After a very tense hour and a half, the suspicious blinking object was determined to be a christmas ornament.

The terrorists win again. All it takes to turn the tables is a bit of common sense. Unfortunately, that may be asking too much.

TSA Averts PR Disaster

Yesterday I went to the airport, dreading the choice between a full-body scan or a full-body pat-down. I arrived more than two hours early. I was expecting long lines, large crowds, and a testy atmosphere; neither passengers nor TSA employees seem to enjoy the new security procedures.

After checking in with my airline, I walked down to the dreaded security line, ticket and driver’s license in hand. The line was suprisingly short. DC is a transient city. About 40 percent of the region’s population is originally from somewhere else. That means more people fly out for the holidays than in other areas. But security was a breeze! What was going on?

As it turns out, just for that busy day, the TSA decided to revert back to the old shoes-and-metal-detectors policy at many airports. No scanners. No pat-downs. At least not that day. After I went through the metal detector, put my shoes back on, and found a seat near my gate, I saw on the news that this was happening nationwide.

Not every airport eased up. Some people still had to choose between the two indignities. But the planned opt-out protests seemed to fizzle out, mainly because most people didn’t have to.

The TSA did the right thing. It doesn’t need the scanners. It doesn’t need the pat-downs. Unfortunately, it did the right thing for the wrong reasons.

If scanners and pat-downs really are about safety, TSA would have stuck to its guns. No, they are about security theater. And PR is one of the most important aspects of this theatrical production.

The opt-out protests were a PR disaster waiting to happen. How many John Tyners would be born that day? Better to not even give them the chance. Then reinstate the scanners when popular fury dies down.

It worked. This morning’s headlines are screaming about TSA protests fizzling, or disappointing, and the like. That’s because TSA took away the opportunity for anything to be protested.

Worth noting: even without the scanners and pat-downs, there were no terrorist attacks. This is because terrorism is rare. I look forward to the day when we have an adult security policy that reflects that reality.

Now we shall see if I have to endure the scanner-or-pat-down Hobson’s choice on my return flight.

Al Qaeda: Clowns or Killers?

As he often does, Gene Healy hits a home run in his Washington Examiner column. More and more hilarious stories of bumbling, incompetent terrorists are coming out. Gene shares some of the better ones and asks, “You ever get the feeling that some of these guys aren’t the sharpest scimitars in the shed?”

This leads to a conclusion reached by far too few:

We’ve given al Qaeda power over us they don’t deserve. When we recognize that they’re often inept and clownish, we weaken their ability to sow terror. For the sake of our liberty and security, it’s prudent and patriotic to allow an occasional smirk to cross your stiff upper lip.

He’s right. Terrorists win when we overreact. And overreact we have. From airport security theater to the 854,000-employee post-9/11 homeland security aparatus, Americans have willingly handed al Qaeda a bigger, longer-lasting victory than they could ever have hoped for.

Terrorists Are Nitwits

So claims a must-read article at The Atlantic (hat tip to Radley Balko):

They blow each other up by mistake. They bungle even simple schemes. They get intimate with cows and donkeys. Our terrorist enemies trade on the perception that they’re well trained and religiously devout, but in fact, many are fools and perverts who are far less organized and sophisticated than we imagine. Can being more realistic about who our foes actually are help us stop the truly dangerous ones?

Remember: terrorism thrives on over-reaction. Not only are terrorists rare, they are often incompetent. Lightning strikes kill 20 times as many Americans. One day homeland security policies should reflect that.

How to Stand up to Terrorists

Fear of terrorism is literally irrational. You are 20 times more likely to be struck by lightning than fall victim to a terrorist attack. 200 times more Americans are killed by car wrecks than by terrorists. Yet people seem to be at least 200 times more scared of terrorists than of cars. This makes no logical sense.

In an article in the new issue of the CEI Planet (on page 7), I make the case that this is due to black swan bias, an inborn cognitive bias in the human brain that makes us pay undue attention to rare, catastrophic events and ignore everyday dangers.

Terrorism thrives on black swan bias. Terrorists are so few in number that fear is their only weapon. Every time people submit to new security theater measures, every time we trade away our freedom for the illusion of security, the terrorists win. The way to fight back is to not be scared. Fortunately, the facts give us plenty of reasons to drop our irrational fears.

Regulation of the Day 124: Kissing Your Girlfriend Good-Bye

How do we know the terrorists are winning? When a man kissing his girlfriend good-bye at Newark Liberty International Airport results in the evacuation of an entire terminal, 200 delayed or canceled flights, and re-screening for thousands of passengers.

There is a word for this: overreaction. If this how the government reacts to a threat that is 20 times scarcer than being struck by lightning, we are doing something wrong.

Yes, the criminal kisser was wrong to sneak under a security rope to get one last peck from his girlfriend. But closing down an entire terminal at a major airport for six hours is overdoing it. Just take a look at the offender.

His name is Haisong Jiang. He is 28 years old and very much in love. He emigrated to the U.S. from China in 2004, and met his girlfriend at Rutgers University. She recently moved to California, though they remain together. Mr. Jiang is still in the New York area, pursuing a biology Ph.D. When he receives his degree later this year, he plans to move to California to be with her. He is clearly not a terrorist.

Mr. Jiang’s forbidden kiss was recorded by surveillance cameras. It was clear that he was sneaking a kiss, not a bomb. Even so, a five-day manhunt ensued. Mr. Jiang was arrested and tried. Fortunately, his sentence is a light one: “a $500 fine and $158 in costs and fees,” plus 100 hours of community service.

I was a bit worried that he would have been shipped to Guantanamo Bay, frankly. Hopefully retired Maj. Gen. Robert Harding, the new head of the TSA, will take steps to make airport security more rational and less driven by fear.

In-Flight Wi-Fi: Security Threat?

An article in this month’s Infotech & Telecom News on a TSA proposal to ban in-flight wi-fi quotes me at length. Here’s what I had to say:

“Are such restrictions justified? No,” said Ryan Young, the Warren T. Brookes Journalism Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “The only way to prevent terrorism is to make terrorism difficult.

“Banning in-flight entertainment would not do that,” he added. “Terrorism is a rare threat, and it should be treated accordingly. Every time you board a plane, your odds of being a victim of a terrorist attack are about 1 in 10.4 million. You are 20 times more likely to be struck by lightning,”

‘Chipping Away at Freedoms’

“Terrorists can’t win by killing people,” Young said. “There are too many of us and too few of them. They win by making us overreact in fear. And that is exactly what the TSA is doing.

“Chipping away at freedoms like in-flight wi-fi might make people feel safer. But it doesn’t actually make them safer,” he said. “The TSA should make sure that all cockpit doors are reinforced. It should diligently screen checked baggage. Passengers know that sometimes they have to take matters into their own hands. Anything beyond that isn’t security. It’s security theater.”

Dangerous Driving
Young adds TSA’s reaction to the Christmas Day bomber and other potential threats could not just stifle tech innovation but also harm the ability of the airline market to improve its services.

“Banning in-flight wi-fi would hurt both the airline industry and technology companies,” Young said. “Some airlines, such as JetBlue, compete by offering fringe benefits that competitors don’t, like in-air wi-fi. Taking that away would make the airline market more homogeneous and less competitive.

“Banning in-flight wi-fi also poses a safety risk,” he added. “When flying becomes more onerous, some people will opt to drive instead. Per mile traveled, driving is far more dangerous than flying. Car accidents kill at least 200 times as many Americans as terrorists do each year.”

This Is How Terrorists Win

Fear is a terrorist’s only effective weapon. There are so few of them, and their attacks are so rare, that fear is all they have. Yet they win victory after victory. People and governments have an irrational tendency to over-react to rare but conspicuous threats. Here’s our latest loss:

[Washington, DC] Metro Transit Police will hold a “major anti-terrorism show of force” Tuesday during rush hour at one of the agency’s “busiest Metrorail station,” according to a media advisory released by the agency…

Metro said about 50 officers from several Metro Transit Police units will participate in the exercise, including anti-terrorism and K-9 explosives detection teams, bomb technicians, mobile and foot patrols.

As a daily user of the DC Metro, here’s hoping this security theater production happens as far away from my commute as possible.