A couple of years before the horrific events of 9/11 I flew through Boston’s Logan International Airport.
I suppose I need to qualify that.
I flew through Logan a lot in those days. Several dozen times in the years immediately prior to 9/11.
The security there was a joke – and a bad joke at that.
Nothing about Logan’s security force was professional, from the demeanor of the slovenly personnel, to the half-assed screening procedures, to the outdated and poorly maintained equipment, nothing. As an experienced military intelligence officer with extensive security and counter terrorism training, believe me when I say I was astounded by just how lousy the security system at Logan International was in those days.
Once when I was passing through Logan on my way to a Naval facility in Maine, I requested that my camera bag be searched manually – I was carrying a couple of wetfilm cameras and some special film and I didn’t want them run through the X-ray machine. The women behind the counter looked at me like I’d sprouted horns. Her face and arms were covered in gang tattoos and for a minute there I thought she was going to put a cap in my ass for having the temerity to interrupt the conversation she was having with a co-“worker.” She looked at me, looked at the camera bag and dismissively told me to “just go on through” and pointed vaguely towards the metal detector.
So I did.
The guy running the detector shrugged at the whole thing and waved me through despite the bingbingbing of the machine that he was more or less operating. Mostly less.
But then, as I started to walk away towards my gate, the metal detector guy called me back and said to another fellow, who I assumed was the watch supervisor, “shouldn’t somebody look in his bag?” The watch supervisor looked at my camera bag and then said, “just run it through the scanner.” So I explained the situation and again asked that it be visually inspected. The supervisor shrugged disinterestedly and told yet another young woman, who was also covered in gang tattoos, to inspect my bag.
I hefted the camera bag up on a table and unzipped the top. Inside were several 35mm wet film camera bodies, each in a separate padded slot, and a dozen lens. The girl, obviously irritated at being tasked to do her job instead of being left to buff her nails, pawed through the case without actually looking at anything and then snatched up a camera body and put it to her eye as if she was looking through the viewfinder – to, I assumed, verify that it was indeed a camera and not a cleverly disguised block of heroin.
“It’s fine,” she snapped at the supervisor, then she literally threw the camera body back in the bag and waved me away from the table.
Here’s the thing. That particular camera body was a Pentax MX manual SLR, and because there was no lens attached I had a black plastic cap over the lens-mount to protect the mirror. There was absolutely no way that young woman could have seen anything through the viewfinder. And in fact, she didn’t actually look through the viewfinder at all – as I watched incredulously, she held the camera upside down and “looked” into the leather cover’s snap fitting.
I pointed this out to the supervisor. He angrily told me to move the fuck along.
You know, you really don’t have to be an intelligence officer to figure out that not one of those people had a damned clue as to what they were doing.
So, a year later when it was determined that two of the hijacked 9/11 flights originated from Logan, well let’s just say that I wasn’t even remotely surprised.
In the aftermath of 9/11 those same people, those grossly incompetent security personnel, those exact people who had let Mohammed Atta and his murderous brothers through security without a backward glance, were deputized and turned into a federal police force with almost unlimited power over the travelling public, in the air, on the rails and roads, and on the sea.
In retrospect, that was probably a good thing.
Yes, I said it. Bear with me a minute.
It’s taken nearly a decade to shake out, but
- The kind of abject outright incompetence I witnessed at Logan (and many other airports throughout the US) all through the decade preceding 9/11 is gone. The Transportation Security Administration mandates extensive training for all of its officers with continued refresher training. There are exams and qualifications and uniform standards. Now, like in any other organization, some of those officers are better at it than others, but at least they all get rigorous and standardized training and there are minimum levels of competency that must be adhered to.
- There are damned few security screeners nowadays with a lackadaisical attitude, most take their jobs deadly serious – as they should. Most are reasonably professional – at least to the level of standard law enforcement.
- TSA has improved to the point where they can attract and retain decent personnel. In the past, in many cases, airport screeners were professionally equivalent to grocery baggers at worst and maybe Mall Police at best – with the equivalent pay and benefits. You get what you pay for. I didn’t say it is great, but it’s a damned sight better than it was.
- The lack of security standardization from one airport to another is also gone. The same standards are applied to small regional airfields as they are to the giant international airports. This was long overdue well before 9/11. An Airbus A380 originating from Pensacola Regional poses exactly the same threat as one originating from Chicago’s O’Hare International. All of those small regional airports, along with obscenely ineffective larger airports such as Logan, provided weakly guarded access into the transportation system, effectively nullifying more competent and stringent security procedures elsewhere. The chain, as they say, is only as strong as its weakest link. Instead of looking at the air transportation system as a bunch of separate entities, the advent of nationalized security shifted the paradigm so that the whole thing was regarded as a single worldwide system. One with many entrances and exits and moving parts to be sure, but as a single unified whole – from a security viewpoint this is the same as going from allowing each user to determine whether they will have virus scanning on their office computer to an overall network administrator establishing uniform layered protection for all systems in the network. There used to be a lot of weak links - most if not all of them have been significantly reinforced.
- There is now federal funding for advanced security systems and equipment – and standards for updating, maintaining, and operating that technology. There is federal funding and mandated research into security technologies and procedures. It is a priority. This too is a marked improvement and it benefits every airport in the US and overseas, instead of just the ones that can afford it or the ones who actually pay attention to the latest updates.
- It beats the ever living hell out of having armed and uniformed military personnel securing the nation’s airports. If I never see squads of Marines in full combat gear, locked and loaded and manning turret mounted M-60’s on top of their Humvees in sandbagged revetments in front of the San Diego airport again it will be too goddamned soon.
What’s this? Jim Wright trumpeting the TSA? Jim Wright? No way, man, no way!
Yes way, man. I am.
Because it would be disingenuous to say that TSA has not significantly improved the safety of US Air travel when it comes to general security and terrorism (both domestic and foreign). So, yes, overall I have to say that the previous administration’s nationalization of air travel security has been a good thing and something that was long overdue (this does not however mitigate my loathing of George W. Bush and his band of Crazies in any way. So, you can stop screaming now and resume regular respiration). Could it have been done differently? Say by setting and enforcing national standards and leaving the individual security organizations in private hands? Could it have been done without compromising Americans’ rights and the Constitution? Possibly, and possibly not. This is how it was done, it’s water under the bridge now and it’s patently obvious that the TSA or another organization just like it is necessary if we’re going avoid having our airliners turned into weapons of mass murder by crazy people.
Understand something here, I’m not saying there isn’t room for significant improvement, especially in the areas of constitutional rights, privacy, and strict limits to the scope of the TSA’s authority. I do not agree in any way shape or form with the current implementation of things like the so called “no-fly list” for example. I think a no-fly list is an absolute necessity, but it needs to be strictly limited. There must be clearly defined public criteria as defined by regulation and law for placing someone on that list, there must be strict compliance with habeas corpus requirements, and there must be an appeals process and a process for petitioning the state to have your name removed in a prompt manner. The must be a better method for differentiating between people with similar names. The must be some common sense, when the list prevents a five month old baby from getting on a plane, well, there needs to be somebody with enough brains and local authority in the loop to determine that these are not, in fact, the droids we’re looking for. As an American, you have a right to know if your name is on that list, you have a right to know why, you have the right to confront the people who put you on it - in court, and you have the right to appeal that action without harassment or retribution. Period. Anything else is an unconstitutional assumption of guilt without trial. I think Americans have the right and the duty to question TSA authority in a non-emergency situation without fear of being arrested and imprisoned and tasered. I think that Americans and those non-Americans who are our guests in this country have a right to, and a reasonable expectation of, courtesy and respect from law enforcement and shouldn’t have to fear the TSA more than they fear the damned terrorists. Also understand that I am only talking about the TSA here, not the larger apparatus of its parent, the Department of Homeland Security – that’s a whole other issue altogether and one that I think requires extensive review, scrutiny, revision, and accountability to the citizens, sooner rather than later.
What brings this up?
Over on the Cafferty File, CNN’s Jack Cafferty asks his readers, “Is it time to start profiling?” Jack wants to know, in the wake of the most recent attempted airline attack by the so-called Nigerian “underwear bomber” who tried to blow up a Northwest flight into Detroit on Christmas Day, if it’s time to actively and aggressively begin ethnic profiling of the travelling public. Cafferty is a conservative pundit, a paleoconservative so far as I can tell (the traditional kind of conservative, before the neocons) the kind of conservative I tend to respect. I usually find Cafferty’s comment to be intelligent and even keeled and reasonable.
His commenters are often much less sane.
Overwhelmingly his commenters say yes, let’s start profiling people right the hell now.
- Jack, it's a shame that "political correctness" supercedes [sic] life & death in America. Sorry, but security comes before someone's "feelings". We need to tell the pc crowd to shut the hell up and let us handle it from here. We've done it their way for 25 years now, and all we've gotten in return is death, destruction, and the loss of our holidays and traditions. It's not only time we racially profile, it should be mandatory at all levels of security – from schools, to police, to airlines and everything in between [Todd, Ohio]
- Political correctness has got to go!! With profiling, if we reduce a tenth of all deadly attacks, then we have made a difference. In light of recent events, it doesnt [sic]look like we are doing very well as is, so I think it is time for a different approach! [jeff]
- it's been time to profile since sept 12th, 2001! our continued misguided sense of morality will continue to cost american [sic] lives. [kevin p – kansas city mo]
- Absolutely! I want to feel secure when flying. I couldn't care less about being PC. [Matt]
This one is my favorite:
- Yes. it is time to start profiling. It is also time to replace TSA with Military Police, who face court-martial if they screw up, as at Newark. Letting someone in through the exit at Newark would hve meant 10 years in a military prison and a dsihonorable discvharge [sic] for whoever let him therough,[sic] not reassisnment [sic] at Newark Airport. In France the Gendarmerie Mobile and in Germany the Grenzeschuetze provide security [Bob]
There are hundreds of comments, not all are for profiling, not all are insane, but the vast majority sure are. They’re scared shitless and they demand action now. Whatever it takes. Not one more American life. Damn the cost. Damn the Constitution. Damn the consequences. And Goddamn political correctness. We must be safe! For the children!
Let’s review, shall we?
Since 9/11 how many American air travelers have been killed by terrorist action? How many maimed? How many airliners have been flown into buildings? Blown up? Hijacked?
Did you answer zero?
Because zero is the correct answer.
Since 9/11 there have been roughly twenty five attempted acts of terrorism on US soil or against its domestic civilian aircraft, or against aircraft travelling to the US. Here’s some highlights:
- December, 2001: Richard Reid, the Shoe Bomber. Had explosives in his shoes, strong enough to damage the plane but probably not enough to bring it down. Caught trying to light the fuses with a match. Had the snot beat out of him by fellow passengers. He’s now in prison for life.
- May, 2002: Jose Padilla, the Dirty Bomber. Never actually built a bomb. Arrested. Appealed his arrest and detainment to the US Supreme Court for violations of his habeas corpus rights, won his case, was rearrested – this time in accordance with proper US law – tried, convicted, and is currently being gang raped in prison.
- September, 2002: The Lackawanna Six. Arrested, tried, convicted, now serving time in federal prison.
- May, 2003: Iyman Faris. Convicted of plotting to bring down the Brooklyn Bridge with a blow torch. Currently serving 20 years in NY State prison.
- June 2003: the Virginia Jihad Network. Eleven men were arrested for trying to sell weapons to Al Qaeda. The leader got life in prison, the rest got long, long prison sentences.
- August, 2004: Dhiren Barot. Wanted to blow up the NYSE. Convicted in England and sentenced to 40 years.
- August, 2004: James Elshafay and Shahawar Siraj. Caught plotting to blow up a NYC subway station by Madison Square Garden. Elshafay ratted out his partner, he got five years, Siraj got thirty.
- August, 2004: Yassin Aref and Mohammed Hossain. Tried to buy a grenade launcher to kill a Pakistani diplomat in New York. They’re both in prison
- June 2005: Umer and Hamid Hayat. Hamid went to a terrorist summer camp in Pakistan, his dad, Umer, lied about it to the FBI. Hamid is spending the next 24 years in prison, his dad eventually pled guilty to lying and trying to smuggled $28K to terrorists. I don’t know what his sentence was and don’t really care.
- August, 2005: Levar Haley Washington and friends. Conspired to attack a National Guard facility, Los Angeles synagogues, and some other targets in Orange County, California. They are all in jail awaiting trial.
- December, 2005: Mike Reynolds. Plotted to blow up a Wyoming Natural Gas refinery, a pipeline, and a New Jersey oil facility. Tried to tell police he was really working as an undercover private citizen to root out terrorism in the US. He’s now in Federal prison, and will be for the next 30 years.
- February, 2006: Mohammand Zaki Amawi and Co. Caught and convicted of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists and plotting to kill “people in the Middle East.” They are in jail all awaiting trial.
- April, 2006: Syed Haris and Ehsanul Islam Sadequee. They’ve been indicted for conspiracy to provide support to terrorists by videotaping the US Capital Building and World Bank HQ and sending the tape to a London Extremist group. Awaiting trial.
- June 2006: Narsearl Batiste and six idiot friends. They plotted (with the FBI as it turns out) to blow up the Sears Tower. They are awaiting trial.
- July, 2006: Assem Hammond. Thought about bombing the NYC subway. Talked about it on the Internet. Should probably have just stuck to porn. Caught, pled guilty. In Jail in Lebanon.
- August, 2006: Liquid Explosive Plot. British counter-terrorism forces stop a plot to put liquid explosives on planes bound for the US. 24 people were arrested, 15 were charged with terrorism and are awaiting trial in London.
- May, 2007: Fort Dix Plot. Six idiots plotted to attack US Army soldiers on Fort Dix. Charged with conspiracy, they are awaiting trial.
- June 2007: JFK Plot. Four men plotted to blow up a jet fuel pipeline that provided fuel to JFK International Airport. Three of them were caught and are awaiting trial, the forth man got away.
- March, 2007: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Caught. Mastermind behind a number of terrorist plots. Awaiting trial.
- November, 2009: US Army Major Hasan goes on a rampage at Fort Hood, Texas. You all know what happened.
- December 2009, The Underwear Bomber.
Out of the last nine years, of all the attempted terrorist attacks, only three involved airliners, and only two managed to get to the final stage, and of those two, neither achieved their goals specifically because the limitations on the explosive devices they were forced to use by the security measures made success very unlikely. They couldn’t carry proper explosives. They couldn’t carry real detonators. They were very, very limited in their capability. These people aren’t magicians or demons or imbued with superpowers that defy the laws of physics. Overall, in almost every single case of terrorism on US soil for the last nine years, the terrorists avoided attacking airplanes because those targets were just too damned difficult within modern post-9/11 security procedures.
None of the three terrorist plots against US airliners succeeded in killing a single American citizen. None.
And yet overwhelmingly, commenters on Cafferty’s blog and other sites, letters to the editor, media and pundits deplore how political correctness keeps downing airplanes and killing our people. The facts simply don’t back that up. Zero planes under the cognizance of the TSA have been taken down by terrorists, zero passengers on any American plane have died or been injured or even significantly inconvenienced by terrorists since the TSA took over following 9/11.
In fact, the only terrorist to succeed in killing Americans on American soil in the last nine years was US Army Major Malik Nidal Hasan – and that had absolutely nothing to do with air travel, airplanes, or underwear bombs. And none of the proposed screening or profiling the pundits and commenters are clamoring for would have done a damned thing to prevent Hasan’s rampage. The failures in Hasan’s case are of an entirely different matter.
However, conservatives on Cafferty’s blog and across the nation are screaming that we must do more to protect American lives when it comes to air travel. We must profile. We must perform full body scans of everybody getting on a plane. No American life, not even one, must be lost to the terrorists.
Not even one.
According to these people the American air travel system is broken and getting worse. It’s dangerous. Our president doesn’t take security seriously and he’s getting us killed! (really, go read the comments, listen to Rush, listen to Glenn, listen to Fox).
Very well, let’s look at a few more numbers then, shall we?
Between 2001 and the end of 2009 there were 302,626 traffic fatalities in the United States. That’s an average of about 30,000 a year or about ten times the number who were killed on 9/11 by terrorism. Or to put it another way, car crashes are about 30,000 times more deadly annually than terrorism in the United States. 30,000 times.
Between 2001 and 2006, 181,110 Americans were killed by guns. One hundred and eighty one thousand, one hundred and ten. That’s an average of 30,185 deaths per year from firearms. Making gun related deaths in the United States roughly 30,000 times more deadly, per anum, than all of the terrorist acts against Americans on American soil or American airplanes for the last nine years combined. 30,000 times more deadly. 30 thousand times. That’s right, it’s a whole lot more likely that you’ll get killed by your drunken beer buddy while deer hunting than by a terrorist with Jihad in his underpants.
Now, before anybody gets their Charlton Heston Underoos all bunched up – yes, there are statistical weighting factors that should be considered when making such comparisons, such as how many drivers caused their own deaths by being drunk or stupid, how many firearm related deaths were deliberately self inflicted, and so on. Massage the numbers however you like – 60,000 Americans die every year from two forms of common and pervasive preventable violence. For the last nine years, zero Americans have died on airplanes from terrorism. Why are the lives of Americans lost to car accidents and guns any less important to conservatives than the ones who haven’t died on airplanes? Based on the same reasoning displayed on Cafferty’s blog, shouldn’t we profile drivers? I’m all for keeping drunk, stoned, distracted, tired, stupid, ignorant, incompetent and rednecked drivers off the roads. Ditto times ten for the ownership of firearms. If one American life is worth ethnic profiling, strip searches (virtual or otherwise), pervasive monitoring, onerous regulation and procedure, loss of rights and freedom when it comes to air travel, why isn’t it for those things that are nearly 30,000 times more likely to kill Americans each and every year?
I mean, hell, these people are afraid to get on an airplane because zero people have died in the last nine years from terrorism (on airplanes), but they’ve got no trouble driving down the highway with a bunch of drunken goobers shooting at road signs?
Forgive me if I don’t pick up a bible and AR-15 and join the screechy monkeys demanding that TSA do something right now to increase airline safety! Right now! Safety! Terrorists!
Here’s the thing folks, racial, ethnic, religious, and political profiling won’t work.
Not here, not now.
- The TSA, no matter what strides they’ve made in increasing the quality of their personnel, are not equipped to conduct “profiling” properly or effectively. The TSA screeners are not FBI agents or CIA interrogators. Their education level isn’t particularly high on average. Screeners, in general, do not have degrees or higher education in law enforcement or psychology. To learn proper profiling would require extensive education, training, experience, time, and money. And nobody is willing to pony up those things.
- The Israeli model. No. Israeli security measures will not work for us. Not on the scale we need. Not without a tremendous overhaul of the entire American system (and it wouldn’t have stopped the Underwear Bomber anyway, since his flight didn’t originate in an American airport). Note the previous paragraph, Israeli agents are far more highly educated and trained than TSA security screeners. Significantly more. They are also a much, much smaller force with a much, much smaller area of responsibility. Holding up Israel as an example of the effectiveness of ethnic profiling is a logical fallacy on a number of levels. First because Israel doesn’t do ethnic profiling – their agents screen everybody and they aren’t “profiling” in the manner that Americans think of it. Israeli security agents are looking for a number of physical, verbal, and non-verbal cues the way a professional cardsharp watches the guy across the table for tells. And second, holding up Israel as an example of what we should do security wise is no different than holding up Canada or Belize as an example – nobody bombs their airplanes either. Those who want us to impose Israel-like security measures here have no idea what they’re asking for, the cost alone would be staggering on the scale necessary here in America – hell more people go through Chicago’s O’hare in any one day than all the people who go through every airport in Israel in a month, now multiply that times, well, America. You can’t afford it. Not even close. Now try to imagine the wait times…you’ll have to show up for your flights days early.
- Ethnic profiling is un-American. Yes it is and it’s got nothing to do with political correctness. We are all equal in America. Those calling for only the profiling of non-Caucasians are demanding that the minority bear the burden of keeping the Caucasian majority happy – not safer, just less nervous about flying with people who aren’t white. We’ve been fighting against that bullshit for how many damned years now? But, of course those demanding the implementation of ethnic profiling are really talking about only singling out people who “look” like terrorists, i.e. Arabs. How long do you think it will be until blacks, Latinos, and other darker skinned minorities start looking suspiciously like they might be from Pakistan or Saudi Arabia? I once had a friend, a shipmate, who was Puerto Rican – born in New York, spoke English with a Harlem accent, educated, Navy man on active duty – arrested in Texas, detained, and despite his military and state IDs was processed for deportation “back” to Mexico because he couldn’t produce a green card (neither can I, but that’s irrelevant, I’m white). And it would have happened too, if the Navy didn’t step in and rescue him from the profiling clutches of Immigration. Those demanding racial and ethnic profiling can’t imagine it happening to them, but let it happen even once and you’ll hear some howls of outrage. You better believe it.
- And profiling will become racist in the United States, don’t think for one moment that it won’t. There are plenty of bigots who will use racial profiling as an excuse. Don’t believe me? Ask any person of color who lives in New York.
- And profiling will become a racially divisive issue. Yes it will. Because it’s America and race is a damned volatile issue here, unlike elsewhere. We’ve got a lot of baggage when it comes to race in America and implementing security screening for certain people because they aren’t white is not going to fly – and it shouldn’t. Call it political correctness if you like, but the truth of the matter is that people who think racially profiling others but not themselves are full of it. Perception is nine tenths of politics, don’t think people won’t seize on the issue to score political points and enrage others? Don’t think it won’t happen? Two words: Death Panels. It doesn’t have to be true to drastically influence the population and the government.
- Profiling only those who “look” like terrorists, blinds you to those that don’t. Which is why the Israelis don’t do it. What does a Muslim terrorist look like? Does he look like a kid born and raised to white parents in California? Does he look just like John Walker Lindh? Does he wear an American Army uniform? Would all of you Patriots stand to see to those in the military uniform of this country pulled out and strip searched because they happen to have olive colored skin? How about Jesus? He was from the Middle East, wasn’t he? Or was he the only non-Roman Caucasian born in the holy land two thousand years ago?
- This will become a divisive issue. It is inevitable in the United States. And it will distract us from other methods that are more suitable to us and our nation. It will pull resources away that could be better used elsewhere. It will deepen the divide between white and non-white Americans. It will distract us from the real issues, and the real enemies.
- Finally, for the last nine years the total number of Americans killed on American airplanes due to terrorism has been zero, now pay close attention here, no matter what security procedures are put in place, you cannot make American deaths due to terrorism on airplanes less than zero. It is not possible. You cannot bring those who died on September 11th, 2001 back to life, no matter how how hard you try. Even if you are Jesus.
Now, understand something here – I am not advocating complacency. Far from it. But security is a business best left to professionals and not the mob - and sure as hell not ignorant dipshits like that guy on Cafferty’s blog who wanted airport security taken over by the military. Security is something that is best implemented after study and investigation and deliberation by those who know what they are doing, and not something you do because you’re afraid and pissing your pants over imagined bogymen. Security is best based on facts and solid information, and not made up anecdotes and urban legends and sound bites.
I believe that profiling, the comprehensive kind used by FBI and CIA profilers, does have a place in airport screening. I believe that advanced technology up to and including full body scans and backscatter X-rays have a place in airport security. I believe that increased training and professional standards for security personnel are a desirable goal. And I believe non-technological and old fashioned police work have a place. And I believe all of those things are working, now.
The proof? Well, I’ve already given you that. Count the number of American dead from terrorism since 9/11. The proof is in the math, not in the hysteria.
The key, folks, is vigilance, perseverance, innovation, dedication, professionalism, and more than anything remembering who we are and what we stand for.
The key, is to not be afraid.