Sunday, January 3, 2010

On the foiled terror plot and airport security

After the news of the latest foiled airline terror plot, everybody has been up in arms over how lax security is and how much more we need. Now, I hear about full body scanners across the board, patdowns of all passengers, mandatory racial profiling, air marshals on every flight, and wait times on the order of hours. This sounds less like a free country every time I turn on the news.

People have been quick to criticize the government about its failure to detect the threat- and rightly so. Warning signs were ignored, and the existing regulations didn't catch the bomber before he boarded the plane. This much is true. The irony is that the solutions everybody is looking for all involve calls for more government security. People don't realize they're demanding better results from the very entities whose failure is still fresh in their minds. They don't realize they're demanding the impossible.

I understand how fears are renewed when something like this happens. But even in light of all the uproar about how much more needs to be done to step up security, I disagree. I argue that less needs to be done- not more.

The people on board the flight were the ones who foiled the terror plot. This happened not because of safety regulations, but in spite of them. If similar plots are going to be foiled, it will be the people acting to defend themselves from terrorism who will get the job done, not any government stepping up airport screening. To those on flight 253, the fear of being blown up turned out to be more useful than the TSA.

There is a lesson in this. Everybody (not just Americans) needs to understand the best we can do to counter terrorism (among other things) is to recognize that our safety is ultimately our own responsibility. It's not an exaggeration to say that when we rely on the TSA to keep us safe, we put our lives in the hands of the same people who run the motor vehicle inspection stations.

Whoever said eternal vigilance is the price we pay for freedom knew what he was talking about. The greatest deterrent to a possible terrorist will be knowing that, upon boarding a plane, there will be a hundred wide-eyed people all too ready to get up and put a stop to any suspicious activity that might jeopardize their lives. After all, as a terrorist, which cabin would you rather attempt to blow up? The one where everyone takes his safety for granted after getting through airport screening, or the one filled with people alert enough to be on the lookout for guys like you?

The demands for tighter airline security from the government is a symptom of a much deeper issue. That issue is the attitude towards the role of government and, moreover, its duty and capacity to protect us. The best the government can do to curb terrorism is to strike at the root of the problem, namely to dramatically reduce its role in foreign affairs. Such is not only a legitimate function of government, but also something we as citizens haven't the power to do for ourselves. Notice once again that the solution is less government, not more.

I would even go so far as to say that if there were an airline that actually boasted it "lacked security" beyond the basics like metal detectors and sober pilots (which I expect from any airline), it would be more safe to fly than the airlines with the tightest of TSA security regulations (not to mention cheaper and more convenient). What kind of people would ever fly such an airline? Not the foolhardy and the suicidal so much as the watchful and the free. Knowing what kinds of people are really out there and being mindful of the risks involved when getting on an airplane are much more effective than having to remove our shoes.

I want safety as much as anyone else. The difference is that I know what it means to truly be safe. An ongoing tragedy that still goes largely unnoticed is our failure to understand that like so much else, safety without responsibility is an illusion. It's a reckless mistake to give the government carte blanche to "do whatever it takes" with any issue at all (our safety included). Because it doesn't have what it takes. The truth is that only a free society has what it takes- something our founding generation knew, but which we have perilously forgotten. All the government has is a growing list of responsibilities we are learning to surrender to it. And with each one it gets, we march one more step in the direction of not only a less free, but a less safe, America.

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