Airport security is the war in microcosm

Here is a quick calculation by Dana Milbank (h/t: IsraelMatzav):

El Al, Israel’s national carrier, reported spending $107,828,000 on security in 2009 for the 1.9 million passengers it carried. That works out to about $56.75 per passenger. The United States, by contrast, spent $5.33 billion on aviation security in fiscal 2010, and the air travel system handled 769.6 million passengers in 2009 (a low year), according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. That amounts to $6.93 per passenger.

Hmm, you get what you pay for, apparently. Milbank’s point is that the overall cost would be astronomical, while IsraelMatzav says that passengers could simply be asked to pay an extra $50 or so per ticket. Two ways of looking at the same number.

While our government is capable of throwing a large amount of money and other people’s inconvenience (for an absolutely incredible example, watch the video below) at the problem, it can’t be solved by the present system.

The TSA employs standard procedures that are applied to everyone “by the book.” Officers are obviously not encouraged or permitted to exercise initiative with respect to the procedures that are documented. The terrorist, on the other hand, has no difficulty in learning exactly what these procedures are and has complete freedom to think creatively about how to circumvent them.

It’s no contest. Humans dominated the earth’s ecosystems by using their large, creative brains. A rule book, no matter how carefully crafted, can’t possibly compete with a human brain.

The Israeli system — profiling in many dimensions, using screeners who talk to the passengers and look for behavioral clues to escalate the degree of scrutiny, multiple levels of security, methods that are not disclosed, etc. — is designed to pit intelligence against intelligence.

Milbank suggests that we cannot use the Israeli system because of the cost. But I don’t think that’s the major obstacle. As IsraelMatzav suggested, there ways to pay for it. I think the problem is that we’ve developed a culture in which anything discriminatory is taboo (and invites lawsuits). And the discrimination need not be racial or ethnic — you are simply not allowed to single anyone out, ever, for anything, unless it’s done by a legal proceeding.

The Israeli system is inherently discriminatory, because only by discriminating in some way is it possible to focus enough to have a good chance of detecting an actual terrorist. Apparently our government thinks that it’s easier to break the taboo on strangers touching your genitals than the one against discrimination. Which might be true, but it’s still ineffective.

Airport security is a much larger issue in microcosm: the difficulty of fighting an asymmetric war. Airline terrorism is only a small part of the war between the West and radical Islam. What’s important about it is that it may be giving rise to the first time the larger society in the US has actually had to deal with explicitly giving something up as a result of the war.

Some of the confusion is due to the fact that our government hasn’t faced the reality, named the enemy, acknowledged the need for sacrifice, and taken steps to spread it around in a more equal way. Until we begin to see the struggle we are in clearly, we are going to continue to be frustrated and angry — and we won’t prevail.

I promised a video. Take some people who not paid very well to do a job  that they know is impossible with the tools they are given. Tell them that a byproduct of the Sisyphean task they are charged with is  that their ‘clients’ are likely to also be frustrated, annoyed and hostile. Here’s the result:

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One Response to “Airport security is the war in microcosm”

  1. NormanF says:

    America is not ready to acknowledge Islam poses a danger to its national security. And until it does, we’re going to continue to have the absurd state of affairs at American airports in which every one is equally checked to avoid having to acknowledge almost all the terrorism is committed by one identifiable group of people: Muslims. That’s why is not politically correct to do profiling at US airports despite the fact profiling is a normal and non-controversial aspect of police work in this country.