Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Stopping the Next “Underwear Bomber” – by Alan M. Dershowitz

My dire New Year prediction is that Islamic terrorists may well succeed this year in blowing up a civilian airliner. They have already twice proved that suicide bombers can get through security. And those are only the successful security bypasses that we know about.

Who knows how many other potential terrorists, who have been tasked to test our system, have made it through?

For all we know, the Christmas Day “failure” was also a test, at least in part—a test that included the potential for catastrophic success, but a test designed to probe weaknesses in our airline security system.

Only ten days later, another person got past security at Newark Airport and was never found.

Who knows how many other people have simply managed to walk around the metal detectors or through the security exit. I myself saw a man run passed security at Newark Airport several years ago. When I notified security, their response was to search my briefcase and nearly make me miss my flight. There was no search for the security evader and no shutdown of the concourse.

Airport security in many parts of the world is a cruel joke. Worse, it is an invitation to terrorism.

In many international airports, security is no better than in the least secure country from which any flyer begins his flight. Once in the secure area of some airports, there are no further checks when boarding a second flight. There must be security checks at every gate, not merely at the entrance to the general boarding area. Otherwise, passengers whose flights begin at low security airports can board planes without going through reasonable security.

Nor have we learned enough from the near successes of the shoe and underwear bombers. In both cases, we should have acted as if they had succeeded. That they did not had absolutely nothing to do with our security, but rather with a factor over which the would-be terrorists had complete control, namely improving the effectiveness of their explosive triggers. Imagine what the reaction would have been if hundreds of Detroit-bound passengers had been murdered. That is what the reaction should now be to this near-catastrophe.

We must adopt a multi-tiered approach to airline security. Frequent flyers who pose no security threat should be eligible for a non-transferable telemetric security card that is keyed into their retina for near foolproof identification.

They could quickly pass through metal and explosives detection. Other fliers can opt for increased security or increased privacy. Those who opt for increased security would be subjected to intrusive scanning, without a metal box protecting their private parts. After all, it was the private parts that were the location of the most recent explosives. If you are too prudish to have your private parts scanned, then opt for privacy. In that case, you have to come to airport three hours early and be subjected to a thorough external pat down and a lengthy sit-down interview.

The time has come to take airline security seriously. We must also upgrade security in railroad and bus terminals, but Al Qaeda’s obsession with airlines should influence our priorities.

Those civil libertarians who claim that increasing security will not work are simply lying. It will work, though not perfectly, and it will also diminish privacy and civil liberties, though not significantly. Life is composed of tradeoffs. Those civil libertarians who deny that there are tradeoffs are serving neither the interests of civil liberties nor of truth. Among the most important civil liberty is our ability to travel without excessive fear of terrorism, and without excessive intrusion into our privacy.

We must increase the quality and training of the security personnel at the airports. It should become a job for retired and experienced law enforcement officials. It should pay well and it should be subject to rigorous testing. Security “testers” should be using every available tactic to try to evade security. Those in charge of protecting us should be graded by their ability to spot terrorist threats.

There must be more searching interviews of travelers who do not opt for the security card or the scanning. There is nothing wrong with profiling, so long as it does not lump together all members of a particular race, religion or ethnicity. Profiling, based on a wide variety of characteristics that are directly associated with the risk of terrorism, is a good thing. So is “negative profiling”—that is, excluding certain categories of travelers from super-scrutiny based on their obvious non-involvement in terrorism.

Finally, we must have air marshals on every flight. This will be expensive, but nobody ever said that safe travel coupled with reasonable privacy would be cheap. We will implement all of these proposals—and more intrusive ones—as soon as the first plane is blown out of the sky and hundreds of innocent travelers are murdered. Why not do it now, before a preventable tragedy occurs?


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