The recent attempted terrorist attack on a Detroit-bound flight has served as ample fodder for attacks on the Obama administration and the TSA. While there are grounds for criticism, the knee-jerk reaction to begin the blame-game, alongside the TSA’s predictable reactionary response, needs to be evaluated in a more rational light.
The problem is that in American political culture, the impetuous urge to find a scapegoat ubiquitously overrides true insight into a potential (or actual) disaster. When dealing with issues like security, particularly when threats come from disparate sources, there is always some probability that the ‘bad’ event will occur. No matter how secure a system is, it will never be foolproof. If a system is 99.99% perfect it means that 1 in 10,000 times the law of averages dictates that the bad guy will get through. This is especially true when having to weigh tradeoffs between security and issues such as efficiency and personal liberty. An extremely cumbersome yet vastly more secure process could be designed (Maybe have everyone disrobe, wear TSA issued jumpsuits, and be forbidden to have any personal effects on planes); however, the costs in terms of money, time, and personal freedoms would most likely outweigh the added security. For instance, it is absurd to demand that a single phone call from an individual’s father should warrant inclusion on a no-fly list. Such a precedent would overburden the system with meaningless names added to the list. [And, it might prompt fathers of rebellious teenagers across the globe to literally ‘ground’ their children.] Furthermore, such an inane system would still fail to be foolproof as some committed terrorist would inevitably find a way to beat it.
Likewise, the TSA has clamped down on security in the most arbitrary and ineffectual way. For instance pilots are now allowed (and have) to prevent passengers from keeping anything in their laps during the last hour of flight. It is not clear how keeping a Grandma from the Midwest from reading her copy of Going Rogue during the last hour of flight, is going to stop the next Abdulmutallab from blowing up a plane one and half hours before arrival.
The problem is not the current system, per se. Potential terrorists will inevitably find new and ingenious ways to breach our systems in the never ending game of cat and mouse. We should continue to monitor their methods and tactics and respond by altering our strategies. However, the unavoidable infiltration does not necessarily mean the system has failed. What it means is that the laws of probability have finally caught up to us. Instead of rashly throwing the baby out with the bathwater, mistakes like this need to be studied, understood, and used to incrementally alter the system. The costs of proposed changes need to be carefully understood and weighed against the perceived benefits.
More importantly, we have to dampen our urge to see heads roll. The fact is that the TSA is our defensive force. They will never be the ones to win this war for America. Their successes will be largely unheralded, while their failures painfully public. If every time a mishap occurs we reflexively burden ourselves with arbitrary restrictions and decapitate our leadership, we only raise the costs to the American people without actually addressing the source of the problem.
The real war is in the offense; America needs to stop these young, disillusioned men from becoming Allah’s warriors. The failed foreign policy that has yet to reap the grandiloquently stated rewards is where the Obama administration deserves its criticism. Regardless of who is on duty – whether Napolitano or her successor, Obama or the Republican President that follows him – no American airline will be one-hundred percent safe when there are still young Muslim’s willing to take their own lives to satiate their hatred of the West. The culture of scapegoating is futile. Let’s focus on the real problems.