Saturday, August 12, 2006

Epaminondas and the TSA

I'm as interested in our protecting ourselves from possible terrorist attacks on (or with) our commercial airplanes as anybody. But are we really going about this "war on terror" in the most effective way?

The recent chaos as the TSA focused on any liquid in a bottle a passenger wanted to carry on an airplane caused me to try and remember when and where I'd written something about this. Finally I found it: Nicholas Johnson, "Epaminondas and the Effectiveness of Domestic Security Efforts," International Leadership Forum, December 25, 2001.

Here are some quotes from that piece:

"Epaminondas you'll recall (or discover) is always one item behind in its proper treatment: how to carry cake, butter, puppy, bread. He learns each lesson well, but only after the fact. He then applies the lesson to the next task -- for which it is wholly inappropriate.

[T]he children's story of Epaminondas (Sara Cone Bryant, "Epaminondas and his Auntie"). If you didn't hear it as a child, it's available on the Internet at Politically incorrect by today's standards, change the dialect and it seems applicable to our topic.

"'Locking the barn door after the horse is stolen.'" Our security measures always seem to be addressing the last threat, rather than the next. Maybe that's inevitable.

"(a) We focus on the hyjacking of planes by those who want to live and use the planes for transportation. This leaves us unprepared for those who want to die and use planes as weapons of destruction.

"(b) We screen passengers, and their carry-on luggage, and then discover that we'd better screen the checked luggage as well.

"(c) We screen passengers through metal detectors to find guns and knives, and then discover that cardboard box openers are weapons.

"(d) Now we confiscate nail clippers and tweezers, and are next confronted with human teeth as a weapon (the choice of the guy with bombs in his shoes to attack the flight attendant). How do you screen for people likely to bite their opponents? Do we forbid Mike Tyson to fly?

"(e) We screen for metal bombs, and let a guy on a plane with plastic bombs in both shoes."

That was 2001; this is 2006. The point is, we still haven't learned. There was little to no anticipation that liquid explosives might be a problem. Apparently we were so caught up in the process of taking our shoes off and putting them back on again that neither we, nor the Department Homeland Security and Transportation Safety Agency, were thinking about the next threat.

We were lucky the liquid bomb guys were caught. We may not be so lucky the next time.

Isn't it long past time that we started being as imaginative as the terrorists? That we started to think "outside the box (cutters)"? That we focus on what the next threat might be rather than always overdoing it with regard to the last?

Yeah, it gives the illusion that we're "doing something." But is the thing we're doing just making us feel better -- at the cost of failing to anticipate the next, much more likely, real threat?

For example, take air cargo (as distinguished from passengers' checked baggage). The impression I have is that it is subject to something between very little and no examination whatsoever -- while, meanwhile, millions of air passengers are taking off their shoes and relinquishing their bottled water.

There's a smarter way to do this, folks.

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