Airport Security - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity


Airport Security

I am writing this a few days after terrorists hijacked four planes and ran them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Aviation authorities have responded to this by imposing tough new security rules at airports.

This is a waste of time. At best. At worst it takes time and effort away from steps that might actually make a difference.

Reality Check

Let's take a simple reality check. Have metal detectors, luggage searches and the like at an airport yet prevented a single hijacking? I do not recall ever hearing a report in the news about a hijacker who was caught at the airport as he tried to smuggle a machine gun through the metal detector by hiding it under his coat. (Maybe it's happened somewhere along the line, I'd be interested to hear if anyone reading this can come up with some examples.)

Why not? Because surely every potential hijacker knows that there are metal detectors at the airport, and so he is not going to even try to simply walk onto the plane with a gun. Maybe some "impulse hijacker" could be caught like this: someone who is mad at the airline because they lost his luggage or didn't serve orange juice in coach or whatever and who in a sudden moment of irrational anger runs out, gets a gun, and comes back with the intention of hijacking a plane to get even. Maybe such a person would be incoherent enough to forget that there are metal detectors.

But any serious hijacker knows they're there, and so is going to come up with some way to get around them. He'll plant an accomplice in the company that supplies the food, and sneak the gun aboard in a box of pretzels. Or he'll find a way to hide or disguise his gun so that the security people pass it unnoticed. Or something.

Air-tight security

The point is: There is no such thing as an air-tight security system. Every system has holes, and a determined criminal will find them.

The criminal has one important advantage over the security guard: When you put up a fence to keep the criminals out, the security guard must keep the entire fence intact and secure. The criminal only has to make one hole to slip through. The criminal chooses the time and place for his attack. The entire fence must be flawless.

And this is simply impossible. Security people at an airport know full well that 99+% of the people who pass through those metal detectors are not hijackers. Indeed, the vast majority of airport security people will never see a hijacker in their entire lives. Given that, it is simply unrealistic to expect them to be on the alert, vigilant and watchful, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And even if they somehow could be ... then what? Can they really thoroughly search every single person who passes through, thoroughly search every bag? Airports would be lucky to get one flight a day off the ground.

Even if someone really did develop a security system that prevented any weapons at all from being smuggled through, it still wouldn't work. Suppose hijackers told the flight crew that they had a bomb hidden in their luggage, or that some innocuous-looking device they had -- a pocket calculator or a cell phone or whatever -- was really a weapon. Even if this claim was totally false, would the flight crew really be confidant enough that it was impossible to get a weapon on board that they would just laugh at the hijackers and tell them to go back to their seats? I doubt it.

Are metal detectors useless then?

Am I saying that metal detectors and luggage searches are therefore worthless? No, not at all. They serve as a deterrent, and they make the job of the hijacker more difficult.

Potential hijackers who aren't particular clever, or who aren't dedicated enough to work very hard, or who don't have much in the way of resources, may just give up.

The more serious hijackers will at least have to go to more trouble. Every extra effort they must make increases the possibility that someone will notice something suspicious, and maybe they will be caught.

It's like putting a lock on your front door. If you think that this ten-buck lock is a 100% guarantee that no criminal will ever be able to break into your house and steal your property or harm your family, you are incredibly naive. So why put it there? One, it stops some rank amateurs. If some kid is wandering down the street, glances in your window, and sees that nice TV set you have, and no one appears to be home ... a locked door may be enough to keep him out. But the more important thing it does is slow down someone trying to break in. If your neighbors see a stranger bashing down your door with a battering ram, or climbing in a window, they may call the police. If you are home and some maniac is trying to break in and kill you, a locked door may at least slow him down long enough for you to call the police or get a weapon to defend yourself.

A more realistic strategy

Suppose that you are the mayor of a town that has sufferred a rash of burglaries. The thieves have apparently succeeded in picking locks, and when that failed, breaking down doors. What do you do?

You could encourage citizens to buy more expensive locks for their front doors that are harder to pick. You could tell them to add a second or a third lock. You could pass a law requiring everyone to install a tougher door with a steel frame.

Would this help? Probably not. If the thieves got past the existing locks, they'll probably find ways to get past the better locks. Locks are useful, but improving them is only useful up to a certain point. If your cheap lock is easily broken by someone who just twists it hard, sure, spend a little more money and get a lock that's tougher. But even if you could find a lock that was guaranteed to withstand a nuclear blast, it would surely be a waste of money to buy it. A thief will try breaking a window or pretending to be a meter reader long before he brings in heavy artillery. (And who cares if the lock will still be firmly attached to the smoldering remains of the door after the house has been vaporized, anyway?) There is a limit to how far it is worth going in any one direction.

No, the rational thing to do is to have a multi-layered security system. Take it as a given that some number of thieves will get past any lock that has ever been made. So what else can you do? You could encourage people to install electronic security systems. Tell them to get guard dogs. Start neighborhood watches. But surely the most obvious thing to do would be to beef up police patrols, and get detectives working to catch the thieves.

For the simple, obvious reality is that no system that attempts to keep the criminals out can ever be 100% foolproof. So you must always have a backup plan: What do we do if the criminals get past the locked doors or the metal detectors?

I understand that aviation authorities are taking a parallel step: They are now placing armed men, in ordinary civilian clothes, on randomly chosen flights. This makes sense: it implicitly acknowledges that the first line of defense may fail, and gives a plausible backup plan.

The last hijacking?

I wonder if the hijackings of last week may turn out to be the last airplane hijackings for a long time. The hijackers may have put themselves out of business.

For consider: Before this, hijackers have almost always managed to bully the crew and passengers into co-operating with the promise that, if everyone did as they were told, no one would be hurt. And while there were certainly exceptions to this, they generally kept that promise. I'm certainly not trying to minimize what must surely be a terrifying experience, but usually, after a few hours or days, everyone would be released, shaken but unharmed.

But now the equation is changed. This time it was clearly the hijackers' intention from the start that everyone on board would die.

So: Suppose that your worst nightmare is realized: You are on board a plane that is hijacked. You now have good reason to believe that the hijackers plan to kill everyone on board no matter what you do. Surely under those circumstances, there would be some number of passengers who would conclude that you should all band together, and attempt to rush the hijackers and overpower them. After all, if you do nothing, you are all going to die. If you attack the hijackers, they may succeed in killing some of you, but if there are fifty or a hundred passengers versus two or three hijackers, you may well overwhelm them by sheer force of numbers. Even if you fail and they kill you all, you are no worse off than if you did nothing, because they were going to kill you all anyway. So you die ten minutes sooner, so what?

I am reminded of a cartoon I saw many years ago, that showed airport security people handing out guns, knives, chains, etc to every passenger after they passed through the metal detector. A passenger asks what's going on, and is told, "Hey, we figure we'll never stop the hijackers from getting weapons on board. But with every passenger armed to the teeth, what chance will they have?"

© 2001 by Jay Johansen


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