The National Conversation on Terrorism

By / 12.30.2009

I’ve been fortunate to spend the holidays with my family up in British Columbia. We’re not from the Great White North, mind you, but a few days in the Canadian wilderness have been a welcome opportunity to forget about my everyday professional concerns. With the health care bill passed and the pressing Afghanistan strategy speech now well behind us, I was happy to have the break.

Until our trip home, that is. Your faithful blogger sits in the Vancouver airport, having just struggled through the newly enacted, draconian security procedures enforced in the wake of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt to bomb a Northwest flight into Detroit on Christmas Day. All carry-on items were banned from the main cabin (I’m fortunate to be able to hand-carry my laptop through security, one of the few exemptions), each passenger was given a full pat-down (a wad of old Kleenex in my Levis provoked a particularly displeased look from my security guard), and each of the 16 pockets in my winter jacket were thoroughly searched.

Lost amidst the rush to batten down the hatches is any sense of rationality about airport security. It’s a classic case of diminishing marginal returns — every extra dollar the TSA or DHS spends on airport security buys us far less than a buck’s worth of permanent safety. Look no further than the 2006 Heathrow plotters: in response to their desire to ignite liquid explosives in sports drink bottles, liquids on flights were banned. Guess what? You can’t bring your Gatorade on the plane, but Abdulmutallab still got through with a different device. What’s more, the present level of heightened security might make us feel safer in the short term, but it is ultimately unsustainable due to a combination of inadequate resources and an abundance of annoyed passengers.

Worse than heavy-handed is the reaction from Washington’s political classes. Rep. Peter King (R-NY) wasted little time in claiming that America’s terrorism screening system didn’t work; his colleague Pete Hoekstra (R-MI) tried to paint the administration as weak on terrorism. Questions abound: why wasn’t Abdulmutallab caught on the no-fly list? Why wasn’t his father’s warning to the U.S. embassy in Nigeria heeded?

The reaction to Flight 253 underscores the need to change the tenor of America’s national dialogue about terrorism. Implicit in the criticism of the administration’s handling of terrorism is an assumption that with the “right,” effective security measures, America can somehow erect an impenetrable wall around its borders.

It’s time to stop kidding ourselves: We can’t. With the hundreds of thousands of names on security lists, and millions of daily passengers in and out of America’s domestic airports and international destinations, someone determined, smart, careful, and — perhaps most important — lucky will be able to get through, no matter how airtight we believe America’s defenses to be. As a counterterrorism analyst for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, I would write something similar in each threat assessment for U.S. Navy ships pulling into any given port-of-call.

Improvements to the system should be made, of course. But rather than overreacting with new airport procedures, bickering over watch-lists, and politicizing the issue, we’re better off spending our energy addressing terrorism’s root causes. That’s the best way to ensure our security.