The Delusion of the Moment: Passenger Screening Technology

OK, as I sit here waiting for Pres. Obama to speak (again!) on the attempted airplane bombing, I find myself perplexed by a very basic question. Perhaps I am missing something. But the indictment of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab alleges that he carried a device containing PETN and TATP, among other ingredients, onto Flight 253 in Amsterdam.

The indictment doesn’t say how much explosive material he was allegedly carrying, but news reports consistently cite 80 grams of PETN—which is just under 3 oz. (Not clear how much TATP he is charged with having carried.) In any case, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has ordered 150 backscatter scanners, full-body imaging machines, to help prevent another similar attempt. Over the next 12 months, TSA plans to order another 300 such scanners.

But wait... All passengers are allowed to bring 3 oz bottles of liquid onto the plane in their carry-on baggage—where it would not be noticed by a whole-body scanner, which scans the body, not the bag. And it would not be noticed at all period because it is legal.

Now, granted, it might be easier to have a bomb already assembled (more or less) and attached to one’s person. But it’s hard to know without knowing more about this device. It’s possible that a terrorist could just put these explosives in their plastic baggy and breeze through the scanner. And, in any case, these much-discussed whole-body scanners may not even notice this kind of device if it is in one’s underwear and not in the carry-on bag.

I dwell on these tedious details to make a point: This whole shared delusion about the need for more and more invasive screening is very curious. Bruce Schneier described the strangeness today in his CNN essay, “Stop the Panic on Air Security”:

We’re doing these things even though security worked. The security checkpoints, even at their pre-9/11 levels, forced whoever made the bomb to construct a much worse bomb than he would have otherwise. Instead of using a timer or a plunger or another reliable detonation mechanism, as would any commercial user of PETN, he had to resort to an ad hoc homebrew—and a much more inefficient one, involving a syringe, and 20 minutes in the lavatory, and we don’t know exactly what else—that didn’t explode….

We’re doing these things even though airplane terrorism is incredibly rare, the risk is no greater today than it was in previous decades, the taxi to the airport is still more dangerous than the flight, and ten times as many Americans are killed by lightning as by terrorists.

Now back to waiting for Obama and more rhetoric about zero tolerance for something 100% guaranteed to happen again…. Is it too early for a drink?

ResilienceAmanda Ripley