Monday, November 1, 2010

The Best Kind of Theater

Back in the 1960s and 70s my grandfather would find himself at the Santa Barbara Airport parking lot fifteen minutes before takeoff. He would stroll to the counter and quickly pick up his ticker. Security was an invention waiting to happen (and it did happen sometime during web 1.0) and so he would just take his ticket and hop on the plane. The airlines were happy, the airline workers were happy, and my grandfather was happy (particularly because he wasn't the most timely man).

Now, of course, those days are consigned to the dustbin of history. Ancient, forgotten days before the advent of anything worth doing.

Instead of quick strolls through the airport we are left with long lines (vulnerable to terrorist attacks), grouchy works, and too much information about strangers' sock choices. Fortunately, the TSA has decided to up the ante and introduce body scanners which reveal all your parts while not doing much to add to security. And if you don't want your parts revealed, well, you get a special treat from government employees. This brings us to the great blog post by Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic Monthly:

He felt me up good, but not great. It was not in any way the best pat-down I've ever received. The most thorough search I've ever experienced was in the Bekaa Valley, by Hezbollah security officers. That took quite awhile, and the Resistance really manhandled my Resistance. There was no cavity search, of course -- no magazine story, even one about Hezbollah terrorism -- is worth that. But it was the fairly full Monty.
I draw three lessons from this week's experience: The pat-down, while more effective than previous pat-downs, will not stop dedicated and clever terrorists from smuggling on board small weapons or explosives. When I served as a military policeman in an Israeli army prison, many of the prisoners "bangled" contraband up their asses. I know this not because I checked, but because eventually they told me this when I asked.
The second lesson is that the effectiveness of pat-downs does not matter very much, because the obvious goal of the TSA is to make the pat-down embarrassing enough for the average passenger that the vast majority of people will choose high-tech humiliation over the low-tech ball check. 
The third lesson remains constant: By the time terrorist plotters make it to the airport, it is, generally speaking, too late to stop them. Plots must be broken up long before the plotters reach the target. If they are smart enough to make it to the airport without arrest, it is almost axiomatically true that they will be smart enough to figure out a way to bring weapons aboard a plane.

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