Sunday, August 20, 2006

TSA - do we expect perfection?

I think the latest "no-liquids" restrictions imposed by the TSA are ridiculous. Two things have been pointed out a thousand times before, but I think they sum things up well, albeit not completely:
a) The TSA seems to focus on the terrorist's *last* strategy, and
b) The foiled plot in Britain just proves further that intelligence and surveillance are vastly more effective than security at the checkpoint. (After all, how hard would it be to smuggle some vials of liquid or ziplock bags through security?).

Frankly, I think that the ban on liquids (assuming that this is a new permanent reality) is crazy and will do nothing to enhance our actual security in the skies - it (and other security measures) merely adds costs, inconvenience, and delay to travelers, making commercial air travel progressively more miserable. It may cause the bad guys to look for other mechanisms (though I doubt it), and it may just move them to other tactics.

People have said this in satire, but unfortunately it's true: the only way to achieve true security in the skies is to stop letting people fly. The logical conclusion here for Al Queda is to train folks in the gym, making them incredibly muscular. Put 5 of them on an airplane to overwhelm and subdue the crew, and then kick out a window. Pure muscle. I bet it could be done, and the only way to prevent that would be to ban anybody that is strong. It's ridiculous.

We seem to expect the TSA to achieve 100% in providing security. I can't think of any system that has ever achieved that, much less a government one. But I'll make a controversial assertion if only to stir some thinking: I think it is better for us to have a freer society, easier air travel, and what I'll call "98% security" than have an increasingly paranoid, security-obsessed, invasive, and inconvenient society that has 98% security but the illusion of 100% security. OK, ok, so I phrased that in a loaded way, but let me distill it to its more controversial corollary: I think it's not the end of the world for us to suffer the occasional terrorist attack. (Note to the NSA: I am *not* advocating terrorism!)

After all, every big city in America suffers from murders, yet we as a society far more rational about that: we don't avoid a living in a city just because it has had murders, we actually celebrate how safe cities like NYC have become when their murder rates have decreased. We monitor the murder rate and work to drive it down, but nobody expects that somehow we can achieve a 0% murder rate, and nobody would be willing to make the tradeoffs that would be required to achieve that (no weapons, lots of surveillance, lots of loss of privacy, etc.) I think that's the right tradeoff. As a result, the odds today of being murdered in the US still greatly outweigh the odds of being killed by a terrorist. And yet there seems to be no limit to what we'll spend or what we'll do to eliminate the risk of a terrorist attack.

Somewhere in a cave somewhere, Bin Laden is laughing his ass off. He realizes that he did it all wrong: he doesn't have to have his followers kill themselves, all they have to do is feint this way or that and get caught and the whole system gets thrown into chaos and another billion dollars gets spent chasing the unachievable "perfect security," and the whole Western population lives in more and more of a police state.

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