Friday, January 1, 2010

Airport Security Has Become a Fraud

I fly frequently, and I care very much about my safety and the safety of my fellow passengers. Some airport security is necessary for that safety. But that being said, airport security in this country has become a very expensive farce.

All activities entail risk. Driving to the airport to catch a flight entails the risk of dying in a car crash. That risk is -- and always has been -- far higher than the risk of dying on the flight from all causes combined. Staying home is risky, too. There may be an earthquake or a hurricane. And, no matter what you do, you might die of cancer or some other horrible disease. Each of these different deaths is, in an important sense, the same. The victim is dead. To put it another way, I do not care if I die from cancer or in a terrorist attack -- I just want to put it off as long as possible!

But of course there are limits to what we can do. Even if we drive 10 miles per hour and wear helmets at all times, there is still a risk of dying in a car accident. Even if we go to the doctor every day, and have every possible test, there is still a risk that some disease will go undetected. We have to make choices about what steps we take to improve our safety.

So, we must apply some common sense. The amount of time, money and energy we invest attempting to mitigate any particular risk should be based on a simple cost-benefit analysis. How much risk can be reduced at what cost? People -- especially Americans -- like to put their heads in the sand and claim that there can never be a compromise when it comes to safety. But there always is such a compromise, whether we like it or not. Best to acknowledge that fact and make the smartest compromises. Refusing to acknowledge that we are making compromises prevents us from making good decisions and ultimately makes us less safe, not more.

The risk of dying in a terrorist attack is, in the scheme of things, trivial. No one has been killed by a terrorist in the United States in over eight years. Not one person. In the meantime, millions of people have died from cancer, heart disease and accidents of all kinds. A few unlucky folks have even died of being hit by lightning and as a result of shark attacks. Certainly, there is a risk of terrorism on airplanes. There always will be such a risk and, like most risks, it cannot be entirely eliminated. But that risk is already very, very low on the list in terms of actual size.

Moreover, there is very little we can do to reduce the risk further. We already spend millions of dollars, and spend millions of hours of people's time, trying to further reduce a risk that is already very small. As with any endeavor, there is a law of diminishing returns. The cost of improving something starts low and gets increasingly higher, while at the same time the benefits become smaller and smaller. At some point, there is nothing more that we can reasonably do. Airport security passed that point long ago.

Furthermore, even if we could make air travel "completely" safe from terrorism, it is unclear if that would make us any safer. Presumably, terrorists would learn that it is impossible to destroy an aircraft, and they would therefore turn their attention to other targets -- boats, bridges, stadiums and the like. Terrorists are going to hit the weakest point, so making one particular facet of our lives "terror-proof" would be of little benefit, even if it were possible.

The irony of all this is that the press and the government are playing directly into the hands of the terrorists by creating unjustified fear. The idea of terrorism is to scare people and to make them stop living their lives normally. The terrorist cannot hope to kill enough people to bring down his victim; terrorism is not war. Terror works through fear, not bombs. A "war on terror" should focus on stopping fear. But we seem to be doing the exact opposite.

The failed attack on December 25, 2009, provides a perfect example. All of our elaborate airport security was unable to prevent the would-be terrorist from getting his "bomb" onto the airplane. The attacker apparently was not particularly skilled nor persistent -- he simply stuffed a small bag into his underwear. Short of a real (or virtual) strip search, the next attacker can do the exact same thing and be all but certain to get his "bomb" onto the plane.

The attacker failed to blow up the airplane, but not because of anything the TSA did to stop him. He failed for two simple reasons. First, he was not very bright. Second, the passengers intervened (this is at least the third time that has happened -- the final plane on 9/11 and the "shoe bomber" being the other two examples of passengers intervening). Experience suggests we can count on both of these factors in the future. Competent terrorists are, fortunately, rather unusual. Brave passengers are not (and it only takes a few brave passengers on a plane to stop a given attack).

Ironically, however, the attack of December 25, 2009, did succeed in an important respect, but only because of the government and media reaction. The US government reacted by imposing more airport security measures. While those measures would not stop a similar attack tomorrow, they do impose a huge cost on travelers, airlines and ultimately the world economy. The stocks of airlines, for example, fell substantially. The attacker may have failed to take down that airplane, but he caused hundreds of millions of dollars of damage, based on the airline stocks alone. And he did not even have to blow himself up to do it!

The media did its part, too. Scaring the public is always a good way to improve ratings, and almost all major media outlets could not resist. No one said, "Here is just the second attack in eight years, and again it failed without the need for any security. This is proof that we are safe." Instead, the media ran the story so as to scare the daylights out of anyone who was planning to fly.

Terrorist attacks, like shark attacks, cause visceral reaction in most people. Mature, educated people can acknowledge that fear, but at the same time apply their reason and make decisions accordingly. Please, do not play into the fear game. Do not be afraid to fly. Even when there is another crash -- and sadly, there will always be another one -- use your common sense. Flying is, always has been and always will be, a very safe way to travel. If you want to fight terrorism, do it by not being afraid.

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