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Samson Blinded: A Machiavellian Perspective on the Middle East Conflict

The security bug

The world became crazy about terrorism after 9/11. Hours-long airport lines are common. The attempt to increase security at any cost is another side of the failure to fight the terrorist threat at its source. Paranoid security is not only inefficient; its effect is the opposite of what is intended. Contrast countless man-hours lost every day in rigorous public security counterterrorist procedures with the potential loss of life in a terrorist action. More aggregate lifetime is lost, or its utility significantly reduced, in security measures than in a hijacking.

The same is true of resources spent for counterterrorism. Salaries for proliferating inspectors, increased bureaucracy, and the skyrocketing cost of equipment exceed the potential cost of damage in a suicide bombing, if valued realistically, not like the dozens of billions dollars awarded in 9/11 compensations.

Democracy and equal rights complicate things. Although the 9/11 terrorists were Arabs, everyone is searched. A German businessman, whose laptop is sniffed, or an African-American teenager, who has to remove his belt, fit no terrorist profile. Everyone is equal before the law, even if that is foolish.

It is possible to check every passenger the same but not practical, since human life has its cost, and society will spend only so much to save a life. The cost of saving the lives in air transportation vastly exceeds the same cost in medicine. More lives would be saved by funding healthcare than the paranoid airport security. Society should address threats based on their probability-adjusted cost. Planes that deviating from their filed flight plans toward sensitive infrastructure can be shot down to limit the damage from terrorism. Losing a mid-size airplane to terrorist hijackers every day would cost less than the current air traffic security. Nations need the best security money can buy, but money is the point: do not waste on unlikely or insignificant targets. Terrorists outperform the nine-dollar-an hour guards. Secure chemical factories, nuclear power plants, and communication infrastructure, but also reduce exposure to terrorist attack: disperse critical infrastructure, move hazardous installations to the desert, and encourage corporations to move their headquarters to less populated areas.

Security precautions are populism to convince people that governments do everything possible about terrorism, and do so actively like bizarre juggling of the color codes, that citizens get a good bang of antiterrorist security for their tax buck. This profanation, however, would not deter terrorists; they would find weak spots. The next major terrorist attack on the American soil would not start by hijacking planes in major airports.

There are enough ways for terrorists to get weapons on planes to fill a manual. Undetectable nylon knives, ceramic guns. Terrorists can camouflage nitroglycerine, chemical and bacteriological weapons as medicine. Terrorists can chemically eliminate traces of explosives, galvanize containers. Any terrorist with an intelligence background knows those and many other security loopholes. Terrorists do not have to board a plane. They could hire a pilot for suicide mission, or an armed and underpaid federal marshal – for hijacking.

Light planes need no airport at all, but could take off from a field in rural Mexico before entering the United States. Terrorists could check baggage at low-security European airports. Even if airports screen transit baggage rigorously, there is no reason for terrorists to wait until take-off. The baggage bomb could be detonated when a plane arriving from a third-world country nears the terminal at a major airport.

Why bring explosives on board? It is difficult and prohibited by law. Much simpler is to set explosives off in the airport terminal, before the security check, but in the presence of a large crowd of would-be spectators. Ex-spectators, if you prefer.

Terrorists can add explosives to fuel, insert them in spare parts for installation during maintenance, and hide in planes standing in any low security airport. Pilots could be poisoned or killed by a hired crewperson. Terrorists can think up endless modes of attack.

Why all the fuss about airplanes? Terrorists can blow up ships and buses and trains and buildings and simply the crowd on the street. Should security measures include screening pedestrians’ briefcases and purses?. Neither impossible nor feasible, especially considering the various kinds of terrorist threats. Guarding against blowing up trains with hazardous materials would require sealing every inch of the rails, clearly impossible. Cruise ships are vulnerable to explosive-laden boats. Effectively guarding all the world’s chemical plants, chlorine water treatment facilities, nuclear reactors, liquefied gas storage tanks, and myriad other critical objects against terrorists is equally impossible, even if we surround them with minefields. Preventing explosions of the Oklahoma City would mean prohibiting sales of common fertilizers. School kids can make bombs out of acetone and Vaseline. Biological hazards or poisons can be created in the comfort of one’s home and poured into a sink. No sixty-year-old technology is a secret, and nuclear fission is no exception. Even the Moroccans, not quite on the edge of technological progress, have nuclear know-how, and the Pakistanis, widely acclaimed in the East as generally less than bright, have mastered the bomb. There are many ways around the illusory antiterrorist measures nations use. History teaches that no wide-area security is possible; every small settlement, every house, every person, must see to its own security. Technological progress in weapons gave governments a leg up on security for a while, but the technology soon percolated down, and the protection disappeared. Army and police cannot control everything; everyone must be vigilant against terrorists.

Why do not more terrorist acts occur? Perhaps terrorists are reluctant to inflict unwarranted suffering, or perhaps the West is just in front of the wave, waiting for the technological knowledge to metastasize and bring on more terrorism. But the rarity of terrorist attacks can by no mean be attributed to the flimsy security measures governments use.

security bug