Fighting Terrorism, One Tube of Toothpaste at a Time

January 25, 2010

On Christmas Day 2009, Islamic terrorist Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up Northwest Flight 253 over Detroit by igniting a packet containing 80 grams of the explosive PETN that was sewn into his underwear. Although the attempt was foiled by a Dutch passenger, it did show that there are still Muslim extremists set on killing Americans and revealed weaknesses in airline security.

It's not as though Abdulmutallab tried very hard to disguise his intentions. A young male Muslim buys a one way ticket with cash and checked no bags. The ticket agent should have known there was something fishy. Any beat cop could tell you that won't pass the JDLR (Just Doesn't Look Right) Test.

After the attempted bombing, it took President Obama three days to come off vacation to say anything about the underwear bomber. By contrast, you couldn't drag the man out of Washington to go on vacation until after the Senate passed his health care bill. This illustrates as well as anything could where his priorities lie and it's not with defeating terrorism or protecting American citizens' lives.

When the President finally got around to making any sort of in depth statement regarding the attempted bombing, he channeled his inner Harry Truman and said, "The buck stops with me." But, is that really true? He pretty much blamed everyone but himself. However don't worry, no one will lose their job over it. The President said it was a "systemic problem." I think you can read that as meaning it was Bush's fault.

We're safe now; Homeland Security is on the job. DHS Director Napolitano says they will deploy another 300 full body scanners to airports over the next year. These scanners give a nearly nude image of the person in the scanner. I was a bit surprised by Sean Hannity's reaction to this news. While he wasn't pleased by the further invasion of privacy; he felt it would give the TSA another tool to fight terrorism. Aside from the further inconveniencing of the flying public, one problem with these scanners is the possibility of the images going public. How long will it be until some celebrity's body scan winds up on the internet?

However, the real problem with the body scanners is the same problem with checking or banning toothpaste or shampoo or mouthwash or all the rest. It misses the target. As national security expert, K.T. McFarland pointed out; we are wasting our time looking for weapons, when we should be looking for terrorists. If we eliminate the terrorists from our airplanes, the weapons will take care of themselves.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said on the Fred Thompson Show that we need to learn to "manage the risk." He noted that at present our policies are all in response to the terrorists' actions. For example, a terrorist puts explosives in his shoe; we all have to take off our shoes. A terrorist attempts his actions in the last hour of a flight; we can do nothing in the last hour of a flight. In this way, we are treating everyone as though they are a terrorist. Mr. Ridge was in favor of a way of allowing frequent flyers who voluntarily permit the TSA to investigate them and are then placed on a database to bypass the normal security measures, probably by use of their fingerprint. He stressed that we are never going to be completely safe no matter what we do.

El Al Airlines is the most secure airline in the world. Since it is the national airline of Israel, it cannot afford to take chances. In addition to metal detectors, x-ray, baggage searches (without the permission or even presence of the passenger, by the way) and all other substance screenings, every terminal is patrolled by armed guards, some in uniform and some in plain clothes. The airline profiles its passengers without apology. Muslim passengers are singled out for intense scrutiny. Every passenger undergoes an individual interview with trained security personnel. No one is allowed to board an aircraft until they have had this interview and security is satisfied that the person is no threat. In other words, El Al Airlines is secure because it specifically looks for and eliminates any person who might pose a threat.

I was shocked after 9/11 at how willing Americans were to give up liberty not for security but the appearance of security. No amount of x-rays, metal detectors, body scanners or any other inspection method is going to make any difference until we are willing to admit the problem. Terrorists commit terrorism.

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Copyright ©2010 Humphrey Stevenson

Humphrey Stevenson has BS degrees in Chemistry and Mathematics and an MBA and makes his home in Tulsa, OK. He is a chemist by trade, has been published in trade journals, and is a recent "tea party" participant and political writer. His inspiration, as with many conservatives, is Ronald Reagan.