Saturday, December 26, 2009

Terrorism for Christmas, and I'll bet holiday flying will be even worse, now

My own intial impression of the Detroit attempted-but-unsuccessful terrorist attack is that it sounds pretty inept. (Atentado frustrado de Al Qaeda contra un avión comercial en Detroit El País) 26.12.2009 A lot like the infamous "shoe bomber" attempt years ago, after which in America anyway we started having to add taking off our shoes to our normal airport strip-down-for-the-authorities ritual And airport screening became temporarily highly diligent about terrorist baby food being taken onto flights.

I'm guessing that airport security will really be a pain for the next few weeks on American flights. TSA thinks inconvenience equals security in fliers' minds. And we became so well trained during the Cheney-Bush years with the organge alerts and purple alerts or whatever that no one actually knew what they meant and were primarily if not exclusively political scare tactics. So maybe a lot of people will feel reassured if airport security makes us all pull up our pants legs for a few weeks.

I am not at all dissing the need for good security screening at airports. But what we need is good screening equipment, well-trained inspectors who are paid enough to stay in their jobs more than a few months, and constant professional re-evaluation of the effectiveness of the screening for current threats. If half-wit terrorist wannabes like the shoe bomber or apparently also the guy in Detroit, can smuggle potential deadly explosives on board, is it unreasonable for us to expect that TSA could anticipate some of these things and come up with methods to protect against it that don't involve pointless humiliation rituals at the airport?

Since everyone else will jump in to flog their pet issues using the Detroit terrorist attempt, I might as well pile in early with one of my favorite pet peeves. I heard on the news the other day about a plane making a crash landing on the runway in Florida. Most of the 50 or so injuries, according to the report I heard, came from baggage falling out of the cabin baggage compartments. If that report was correct, more people were injured in that falling-baggage incident than with this supposed "Al Qa'ida" terrorist attempt.

And, gee, the airlines in the last few months have been piling on fees for every little thing you can imagine, not least of which is a fee for checking more than one piece of baggage. On United and also Lufthansa as of the first week in January, passangers will be charged $50 to check a second bag. How many tourists or business travellers can get by with one 50-lb. suitcase for a trip of two or more weeks between Europe and the US?

And, as anyone can see on a flight these days, the result is that people are schlepping much more luggage into the passanger cabin, filling up the overhead bins with more heavy baggage that might, you know, fall on someone's head and also making boarding and unboarding messier. And, by the way, all that extra luggage in the cabin provides even more opportunities for someone to smuggle unauthorized material like explosive stuff onto the plane.

When I flew out of San Francisco International Airport last Monday headed for Munich, the security people confiscated four little cartons of terrorist yogurt that I had forgotten to eat before going through security. I wasn't even particularly annoyed, because getting the terrorist yogurt confiscated didn't involved my having to remove more clothing for the nice security people. The particular security official wasn't especially obnoxious, which these days is a pleasant surprise. I asked him if I could just sit there in the security area and eat my terrorist yogurt, but he said I couldn't.

But judging from the news about the Detroit attempt, if I had had explosives strapped to my leg, that wouldn't have been such a problem getting through security as unauthorized dairy products.

For what it's worth, the SF Airport was on orange alert Monday. That means "elevated threat levels" or some such pointless thing. No elected official or public employee is ever going to want to take the risk of lowering it to "normal" or "low". Because we need to constantly be reminded that The Terrorists might kill us any second from any direction so we have to keep bombing Muslim countries for years and even decades on end. And also have our terrorist yogurt and terrorist baby food confiscated by the nice security people to whom we should be duly grateful if we aren't all required to strip down and submit to a cavity search before we get on an airplane.

It's a grim sign of the times that we even need to think to say it. But I hope the arrested suspect is held and tried according to the law so that we will have some kind of judicially-vetted public information on what actually happened. As opposed to having to decide whether to take the government's word on whatever scary explanation it puts out there. Domestic rightwing terrorists are dismissed as "lone nuts", even when they have extensive contact with violent anti-government extremists. I'd like to really know what the Detroit wannabe-terrorist was actually about: lone nut, terrorist super-agent, whatever.


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