Thursday, August 17, 2006

At what price safety?

Last Tuesday I flew from Boston to California, stopping to change planes in Dallas. I had with me a number of personal belongings, including my mp3 player, some books to keep busy on the flight, a small pillow, a pair of earplugs that allowed me to spend some much-needed time sleeping, a container of orange juice (some of which I spilled in my lap), a laptop, and a digital camera that I didn't particularly want to entrust to the vagaries of checked baggage.

Overnight, the world changed, and the same assortment of belongings that traveled safely with me Tuesday was verboten by Thursday. Orange juice is no longer a threat only to personal non-stickiness, but apparently also to international security. What changed all this was the discovery of a handful of people with the not-so-bright idea to smuggle the makings of an explosive onto an airplane disguised as beverages and portable electronics. They were, thankfully, caught before they killed anybody or brought down any airplanes, but in a very real sense, they were nonetheless successful in creating chaos.

Needless to say, I am not in favor of blowing up airplanes, and I don't particularly relish the notion of sealing myself in a metal cylinder six miles above the ground with a couple hundred random strangers. Neither does anybody else, and so we tolerate some indignities as part of the ritual of boarding. We open our luggage to inspection, walk our bodies through metal detectors and, lately, shed our shoes. We are thereby reassured that our fellow travelers have at the least encountered some barrier to bringing knives, bombs and guns on board.

Suddenly, overnight, we must now prohibit liquids and electronics of all description (yes, this rule has been relaxed since I wrote this last Friday). A system that worked almost without incident until yesterday now raises grave fears for tomorrow, and the folks in charge revamp the ritual in hopes of warding off the evil spirits.

They claim that these measures are temporary, but only time will tell how long we must endure them or to what extent they will remain. Should we envision a future of traveling naked, or in airport-issued, one-size-fits-nobody paper gowns?

The antidote, if there is one, will be twofold. First, terrorism needs to be prevented at its source, not its final, explosive symptom. Second, the world is going to have to come to grips with the idea that risk can only be mitigated to a point, and can't be screened, legislated, or administrated out.

At what point is airport security screening better than a ritual show of good faith? Somebody determined to flout security will find a way regardless of measures taken. Somebody who is honest can carry a pocket knife at all times and the only harm will come to fruits, vegetables, and packing tape.

Terrorism operates by breeding fear, and to let that fear manifest in encroachments to personal freedom and privacy, to allow the gradual strangulation of our transportation system, is to relinquish control to terrorists.


Blogger Evil Director said...

See my blog for my commentary on this issue.

18 August, 2006 10:24  

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