Friday, January 8, 2010

Airport Security: Trading Liberty for the Illusion of Safety

I could beat Micheal Jordon in a game of 1 on 1. Sure I could, if the rules for the game were that I win when I score once, and he only wins if I quit playing. He wouldn't stand a chance.

In a similar game North American governments are playing with terrorists, we're attempting to step up our defense with nude body scanners in our airports. The purpose is to "make us safer", or at least, make us "feel safer". Once it's understood that subjecting millions of our own travelers to these machines does not make us safer, it may not make us feel safer either.

Consider the body scanned picture above like those airport security will see. The gun is visible enough, but what of the white stuff around the body? Is that just thick underwear or a plastic explosive? The gun would have been detected by conventional screening anyway, so what we're gaining here is a big fat nothing. What we lose is a piece of liberty.

The value of such liberty is subtle but significant. We have been losing bits of liberty, step by step, each time a terrorist attempts to attack a plane. Authorities act quickly with measures that may have caught the last attempt, even though we have every reason to believe the next terrorist will try something different. Shoe bomber failed, take off your shoes. Liquid bomber failed, no more drinks. Underwear bomber failed, let's have a peek inside your underwear. And so these vain steps will continue ad-nauseam, so long as the public puts up with it. And by putting up with it, we are only asking for more.

Anal cavity searches are coming, after a terrorist inevitably packs explosives there, undetected by these new machines. Those who accept these security measures today will deserve the anally intrusive search tomorrow, which they've been asking for with each metaphoric bending over to new security regulations.

Should we really fear dieing by midair explosion?

Between 2002 and 2010:

Total deaths in U.S. motor-vehicles: 293,823

Total deaths on U.S. commercial flights: 105

Total deaths in U.S. by terrorism: 0

To put it mildly, we can afford to lose a few more planes, or we should get scared about cars. Let's say the terrorists were to blow up few dozen planes per year, we'd still be winning on the safety scale by a tremendous margin.

Some may say that all of this security is the reason for the low death rates on commercial flights. As it happens, I believe that if all security were removed, a rise in the number of terrorist attacks on airplanes would be subtle. This is supported by the facts. Airport security had no effect on either the 2001 shoe bomber, the 2006 liquid bombers, or the 2009 underwear bomber, all of whom managed to fail due to prior police work or passenger intervention.

The cost of airport security adds up to the billions. Trillions have been spent on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, all in the name of security. There are also hidden costs. Millions of people fly each year, and each hour they arrive early to the airport could be spent being productive. So subtract their wages and output from the GDP. All in the name of safety and security.

Why this irrational fear of planes blowing up?

All of this wasteful spending could be replaced with some psychological education about why our fears are irrational. Fear sits in the very primal middle of the brain. It developed during a pre-historic animal state, we know this for we share it with other animals, like mice. Inherent fears, such as fear of snakes, the dark, spiders and heights, were bred into our species after a good number of our ancestors were killed. Flying involves heights, an inherent fear, so to die this way seems particularly scary. Once we realize the cause of this fear, we can look at the statistics, rationalize, and overcome it.

We have to understand our fears and accept the fact that some people want to blow us up. We cannot stop them entirely. We can, however, make fewer people want to blow us up by not buying into the jihad or the war on terror (whichever name you prefer). Our best response is to live our lives without fear. To be terrorized is a choice.


Ken said...
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Ken said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
2.. said...

I agree with you that the security measures in north american airports have cost a lot of wasted productive time, flight delays and a ton of money into new body scan systems and personnel. These methods will definitely not catch the next terrorist.

Your post mentions that we should invest the money into learning about the pyschology of fear. This doesn't solve the problem of terrorist attacks or deterring terrorist attacks - no matter how rare it is.

I think the money needs to go into developing better relations with countries in the world and trying to help rather than invade other countries. The root of the problem is that America has a lot of enemies in the world and as this population of people increases, the more likely the chance of terrorism in North America.

In a car accident, a few people die. When a plane blows up into a building, that causes severe casualties. I do see why these security measures have been put in. It's like your corner store got broken into because you have an open door policy and don't lock your doors. So the next day you lock your doors. They break in again. If you don't put in an alarm the next day, the thieves can just tell their friends and come break in again the next day.

Though I agree it would be ridiculous to lock your doors during business hours and expect all your customers to knock and get screened they come in.

I look forward to seeing more posts!

Ken said...

Okay, I felt bad about hijacking your inaugural post with a massive screed, so I took off my comments and reposted them on the blog my brother is kind enough to share with me, How the Other Half Works.

Good stuff Rob.

wyldechris said...

Fear is the best way un-popular policy can be rammed down a democracy's throat. I recall nation that had an event which caused widespread fear, which then passed policy to shredding constitutional rights, and consequently re-elected it's government.
Those body scanners sure showed up quick! Its almost like they were waiting for an underwear bomber or something....