Following in the footsteps of banning liquids after a liquid bomb was discovered, checking shoes after a shoe bomb was discovered, and banning sharp objects after sharp objects were discerned to be dangerous, the US Department of Homeland Security has now banned the shipment of toner and ink cartridges over 16 ounces on passenger aircraft in both carry-on bags and checked bags on flights within or to the United States.
This is the result of a plot to blow up something (experts are not yet sure if the idea was to blow up the airplanes carrying the exploding ink, or the synagogues to which the cartridges were addressed). Now this is certainly a serious problem and I don’t want to make light of it. However, I do wonder why 15.8 ounce toner cartridges won’t be confiscated while slightly heavier ones will. Where did that number come from?
Seriously, banning a specific item or class of items because they can be used as containers for explosives doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Today it was toner cartridges, tomorrow the explosives could be hidden in video games or PCs.
This is serious business and there are people out there trying to kill us or at least severely disrupt our lives. Technology is not the answer. In fact, Marijn Ornstein, the security chief of Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport said, “If you look at all the recent terrorist incidents, the bombs were detected because of human intelligence not because of screening … If even a fraction of what is spent on screening was invested in the intelligence services we would take a real step toward making air travel safer and more pleasant.” (highlight is my own)
We must get better at discerning real threats and the risk of those threats occurring. The objective should not be to stop yesterday’s threat, but to look forward and stop tomorrow’s threat. Fighting the last war or worrying about movie plot attacks will not move us forward. Ornstein added, “With every incident that happens, the regulators ask for more measures, more measures, more measures.” “As soon as they heard about this [the recent plot to load explosives into printer ink cartridges] we got letters from the US and the UK telling us to take out all the ink cartridges coming through, which means we are fighting yesterday’s war because there is no terrorist in the world who is now going to put PETN into an ink cartridge anyway”
There also is a trade off between safety and security versus convenience and profits. We know that the batteries in laptop computers are extremely dangerous but they are still allowed on board because commerce would come to a halt if they weren’t.
There is no guarantee that anything that we do will stop a terrorist attack. We cannot defend every possible entry point 24×7, and the attackers have all the time in the world to find a chink in our armor. We need to be strategic in our thinking, put reasonable travel restrictions in place, be vigilant, and report suspicious activities to the proper authorities. Arbitrary actions annoy honest citizens making them less likely to take real threats seriously.
Travel safely and we’ll talk soon.