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Airport Screening – The Old Ways Work Also

Stephen Maurer, Adj. Em. Prof. of Public Policy | January 13, 2010

Thirty years ago I received a pat-down in Germany that would have caught
the underpants bomber ten times out of ten. I didn’t think then, and don’t think now that I was singled out. Germany had a bad terrorism problem in those days, they were serious about it, and they did what they (and their public) felt they had to.

America has not reached this point. By any reasonable standard, the main information from the Christmas Day attempt is that this particular Al Qaeda franchise isn’t very capable. A confused kid who sets himself on fire. And some incompetent technologists who told him to mix chemicals in his lap.

Yes, things could have turned out differently. But the U.S. isn’t the only one one that should worry about failures. Think about it from the terrorists’ standpoint Since modern terrorism first emerged in the 1870s, hundreds of groups have run their course and collapsed. In practically every case, the turning point came when continued terrorism began to look futile. People are willing to die, it seems, but not if it makes them look foolish.

Two characteristic American failings on display here. The first, of course, is technology. Our society clearly knows how to do German-style pat-downs and would if things were bad enough. As things stand, though, the trade-off between threat and privacy is a lot less obvious. So instead of choosing we buy expensive machines and tell ourselves that we can have it both ways. Even though the same money could have been better spent on hospital imagers or paying down the federal deficit.

The other American failing is our legendary self-absorption. In any reasonable world, an organization that set its acolyte’s leg on fire would have a PR nightmare. Instead, the massive coverage of the past week has loaned the proceedings a kind of ersatz dignity. America may be the only country on earth that has enough media outlets and cameras and talking heads to save Al Qaeda from itself.

If the problem is hype, then the answer is surely perspective. Americans have faced bigger problems than this — the War against Hitler comes to mind – and they’ve also lost airliners to bombs before. We will again. But just how many news cycles was this story worth?