Security Means Nothing In Our Laps – HUH?

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It is a basic tenant of defense that it is impossible to guard everything from every attacker. That is, the guards cannot be everywhere all of the time. If 100 people are trying to get in, and 10 people are trying to keep them out, the chances are high that one or more will get in. That’s just the way it goes.

No matter what we do as a government or as a people, there are some who will hate us and try to attack us. That cannot be changed either. The world has always been dangerous to humans – whether from animals or other clans. There never was and never will be 100% security. We just have to do the best that we can, and without a lot of chest puffing from our members of Congress who are not on the front lines. It is political suicide to admit that there is no such thing as 100% security.

If everyone is on the watch list, then no one is on the watch list. Again, you cannot watch everyone but need to be judicious in the application of resources. Without knowing who else is on the watch list, how can we know whether or not Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is more or less of a threat?

The Safest Airline

The safest airline in the world, it is widely agreed, is El Al, Israel’s national carrier. The safest airport is Ben Gurion International, in Tel Aviv. No El Al plane has been attacked by terrorists in more than three decades, and no flight leaving Ben Gurion has ever been hijacked. What are the Israelis doing that we aren’t?

Airports in the United States and many other countries are built around convenience while in Israel it’s all about security. We get our boarding passes online and check our baggage at the curb. At TSA checkpoints, twenty-something employees stare at screens, doing the best they can to not talk to us.

Contrast this with an Israeli airport where you stay with your bags until your security check is complete and airline and highly-trained security personnel talk to you and watch you constantly. You’re not allowed to approach the ticket counter until you are cleared by the security system, while in the United States, security is an apparent afterthought.

Israeli airport security, much of it invisible to the untrained eye, begins before passengers even enter the terminal. Officials are constantly monitoring passengers’ behavior, alert to clues that may hint at danger. Profilers make a point of interviewing travelers, sometimes at length, and oftentimes asking questions that don’t seem to make any sense at all – and that’s the idea. The point of the long questioning is to find inconsistencies in a terrorist’s cover story, or to agitate him into a panic. If you are lying or distracted by something, the profilers will soon figure that out and you will be marked as a possible threat and action will be taken.

It’s The People

While the TSA is busy confiscating cosmetics, small pocket knives, and water bottles, the Israelis understand that it is the people who are threats, not the objects that they are carrying. To a much greater degree than in the United States, security at El Al depends on intelligence and intuition rather then performing rote actions and ignoring the passengers.

Meanwhile, the TSA seems to be having a knee-jerk reaction to the recent incident. Anecdotal reports from arriving passengers indicate that all pillows and blankets are being collected an hour before arrival, and that passengers are told they must remain in their seats for that last hour, with nothing on their laps – not even reading material. So if you need to detonate that improvised explosive device you smuggled on board, you’ll now have to do it at least an hour and fifteen minutes before landing. Or, as Bruce Schneier points out, do we really think the terrorist won’t blow up their improvised explosive devices during the first hour of flight?

Other passengers are reporting that the in-flight entertainment systems on international flights are being shut down so that passengers can’t see the flight progress map to determine the plane’s location, so if you don’t have an iPhone you’ll just have to make a guess. And if you have a weak bladder or are suffering from intestinal distress, don’t be surprised if a flight attendant or an air marshal starts banging on the lavatory door.

Is there a 100% guarantee of safety? No there is not. But in three decades, not one El Al plane has been attacked from within, and those are pretty good odds. In my opinion, it’s time for us to learn from the Israelis and get serious about how we protect ourselves when flying rather than closing the door after the terrorist has left the plane.

What do you think? I look forward to your thoughtful comments.

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