The ballyhooed “opt-out” day for the new airport security-screening measures, scheduled for the day before Thanksgiving, sure fell flat. I heard anecdotes from relatives who flew over the holidays that they didn’t see the new scanners, and thus the new “enhanced” pat-downs, in use even at major airports. Until more travelers have had first-hand experience with the machines, I think relying on public opinion polls of the issue is premature, whether they show rising or declining support for the new measures.
All that said, one element in the debate that shouldn’t fade away over time is the fact that our national security bureaucracy always seems to be playing catch-up to an enemy that Christopher Hitchens, writing at Slate.com, calls far more “inventive and imaginative” than our own side:
Let me recommend regular reading of the magazine Inspire, the flagship publication of AQAP [al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula]. It is remarkable for its jauntiness and confidence and sense of initiative. The cover of the most recent issue shows the tail of a UPS jet with the headline “$4,200.” That was the estimated outlay, for AQAP, of the toner operation that disrupted international air cargo for several days. Inside is a telling comment on the only countermeasure to be taken so far: the ban on toners of a certain weight. “Who is the genius who came up with this suggestion?” jeer the editors. “Do you think we have nothing to send but printers?” (Incidentally, I recommend this analysis of the latest issue of Inspire, written by Shiraz Maher of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College, London.)
The authors of this propaganda show a natural talent for psychological warfare. It is, one might say, “part and parcel” of the campaign they slightly unoriginally call “a thousand cuts.” But the simplicity of that scheme is as self-evident as its cunning. By means of everyday devices and products, plus a swelling number of human volunteers willing to die and kill, they can strike at will and even afford to taunt us in advance. While we pay salaries to thousands and thousands of dogged employees to glare suspiciously at shampoos and shoes and toners, the homicidal adversary discards those means as soon as they are used and switches to another. How they must chortle when they see how sensitive we are to the “invasion of privacy” involved in a close-up grope or a full-on body scan. In preparing their own bodies for paradise, they know no such inhibition. If they guess that we will not even think about how to pre-empt the appalling anal strategy [concealing weapons in body cavities] they so far guess right.
In Robert Harris’ brilliant political thriller “The Ghost [Writer],” the Tony Blair character becomes exasperated with facile liberalism and says:
“You know what I’d do if I were in power again? I’d say OK then, we’ll have two queues at the airports.
“On the left, we’ll have queues to flights on which we’ve done no background checks on the passengers: no profiling, no biometric data, nothing that infringes on anyone’s precious civil liberties, use no intelligence obtained under torture — nothing. On the right, we’ll have queues where we’ve done everything possible to make them safe for passengers.”
His angry challenge to his critics is to see which line those flying with their own children would choose to join. It’s a useful thought experiment. At the rate of current progress, however, I rather fear that AQAP might accept that very challenge and make it a point to blow up a plane full of passengers who had stayed in the ostensibly secure line. Or to give up on aviation altogether and start again with trains, which would come to our protectors as a total shock. The new tactics and propaganda of the enemy show them to be both inventive and imaginative. The response of our security state shows it to possess no such qualities.
Note the distinction Hitchens, in citing the Harris novel, draws between the type of three-steps-behind techniques we periodically see deployed in airports as alleged “enhanced security” and the more promising measures that ought to be conducted behind the scenes.
Now, which kind of security measures might make the editors of Inspire — and the terrorists they’re trying to motivate — take us more seriously?