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Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2010

Rituals of Pretend Security

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The attempted airplane bombing on Christmas Day should set off waves of dread among anyone who flies, and not just as a reminder that there are people in the world eager to blow airliners and their passengers to smithereens.

We are still overwhelmingly more likely to die as a result of getting into our cars every day than we are from boarding an airplane. But what air passengers know from experience is that any time an airplane is threatened, the government’s immediate reaction is to institute new security measures—whether they make any sense or not—to pretend it is protecting us.

Sure enough, within hours of the failed attempt to set off an explosive on a flight descending into Detroit, airplane passengers were confronted with new rules for the last hour of flights—rules forbidding them from going to the bathroom, using pillows or blankets and, in at least one case, from reading books.

No one ever explained why special rules had to be in place for the last hour of a flight just because that’s when the young man on the Detroit plane tried to detonate an explosive. Since the flight originated in Amsterdam, blowing up an airplane with more than 300 passengers bound for Detroit over the Atlantic or anywhere else over the United States would have been no less an act of terrorism.

Banning the reading of books aboard airplanes may well be an attempt to reduce literacy among air travelers. Reading can lead to thinking. It’s more difficult to get American citizens to jump through hoops in the name of security if they start wondering how terrorists starting a pillow fight can bring down an airplane.

Whatever It Takes?

But, of course, most Americans don’t bother to think about the justification for any of the freedoms government officials claim they have to take away to keep us safe.

“Whatever it takes” was the most common response from air passengers interviewed about anything the government wanted to do to its own citizens in the war on terrorism. If the latest airplane scare means no bathroom breaks between Europe and the Midwest, go ahead and suspend the Geneva Conventions against torture. Everybody will just have to hold it.

It was President Bush who first learned how to use fear of terrorism to manipulate Americans. When he wasn’t brazenly exploiting fear to win votes or justify unnecessary war, he was putting us through ever more absurd rituals at airports, none of which apparently made us any safer.

For the past eight years, all of us have been padding around airports in our stocking feet like good, little citizens because a goofball named Richard Reid made a failed attempt to blow up his own shoes aboard an American Airlines flight in 2001.

After spending hundreds of billions of dollars to create a Department of Homeland Security and to hire thousands of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners, the failed Christmas Day bomber succeeded in carrying exactly the same explosive aboard an airplane.

We may not have made any progress in keeping explosives off airplanes, but let the record show the TSA has succeeded in closely scrutinizing millions upon millions of shoes.

The Bush administration began adding ridiculous twists to the airline boarding ritual, apparently testing whether there were any limits to what government could order the American people to do to fight terrorism. In 2006, air passengers began lining up to throw away killer lip gloss and potentially explosive Dippity-do to prevent those deadly personal grooming products from falling into the hands of terrorists.

We have a new administration now that presumably is less interested in exploiting fear to justify suspending civil liberties and the rule of law. But President Barack Obama already has been put on the defensive by attacks from Bush’s bellicose vice president and other Republicans, accusing Obama of not being warlike enough against terrorism.

Republicans want us to believe the attempted bombing of the Detroit plane should have been averted by the Obama administration because the father of the suspect told the American Embassy in Nigeria his son was becoming a radical.

When I was in college in the ’60s, the parents of everybody I knew thought their kids were becoming radicals. If we grounded everybody in their 20s whose parents disagree with them politically, all the airlines would go out of business.

What we need most out of the Obama administration now is common-sense improvements to the watch-list procedures set up under Bush to try to identify more real threats instead of taking up the TSA’s time by putting former Vice President Al Gore through additional screening.

At the airports, let’s start using technology that exists to detect actual explosives instead of wasting our time with empty rituals of pretend security to confiscate nail clippers and eyeball all the latest footwear.

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