In the dim forgotten days of 2001, 19 terrorists took control of four planes, attacking the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and crashing the fourth plane in a field in Pennsylvania. I’m sure you heard about it, it was in all the papers.
Okay, I’m being a bit too cynical – I’m an old curmudgeon. But the attacks of September 11, 2001, hit the U.S. and hurt it, and put us into a war that, contrary to the apparent belief of the current administration, continues today.
Everyone who flies anywhere now feels the effects, as they go through the TSA screening process. This would be bad enough, but recently there was a story reported that an internal Inspector General report showed that out of 70 tries to get bombs or weapons through the screening process, 67 succeeded. That’s roughly 19 times out of 20.
This is not a reassuring observation. Especially if you’re about to take a plane trip.
On the other hand, there have been only two attempts to destroy a plane in flight to the U.S. since then, and both were unsuccessful. If it’s that easy to get a bomb or a gun on a plane, why aren’t we seeing more?
As King Mongkut said, “It’s a puzzlement.”
A few years ago, Bruce Schneier coined the useful term “security theater.” Security theater is security steps taken, not because they provide much actual improvement in security, but so that there is an appearance of increased security. Many people have called the TSA security “security theater.”
And yet, well, there haven’t been any successful attacks on U.S. planes since 9/11. How to explain this?
We can’t say for sure, of course – how do you explain any event that didn’t happen – but I think we can make some pretty good speculations.
First, the supply of willing terrorist martyrs is pretty limited. People tend to forget this, and a whole lot of people seem to assume that every Muslim is a potential willing martyr. But we know that’s not true, and in fact we know that willing martyrs are hard to come by, because there are honestly not that many suicide bombers and suicide attacks. Consider: out of a population of more than seven billion, there were only around 180 suicide bombers last year.
What’s more, fairly often we find out that instead of a willing adult, the bombers are tricked or coerced into doing it, with everything from holding family members hostage to simply getting people who aren’t mentally capable of understanding what’s happening.
Second, plane attacks haven’t been succeeding. The “shoe bomber” and the “underwear bomber” both failed, and failed spectacularly – in the case of the underwear bomber, spectacularly and embarrassingly, as his major injuries were burns on his genitals.
Terrorists are like everyone else in at least one respect: Failing is no fun, even if you think blowing yourself up will be. The more failures, the fewer people will be inclined to try.
This applies to their leaders, too: They lose standing every time someone fails. You don’t get a lot of street cred when your underwear bomber just burns his privates and goes to jail.
And third, security theater actually works. Oh, not as well as security steps that aren’t just theater, but all that theater does give the potential attacker some reason to think it won’t be easy. (Remember, the 9/11 attackers used things like utility knives that were allowed aboard planes at the time – they didn’t try to smuggle on guns or bombs either/)
So, you start with a small population willing to kill themselves for their particular variety of craziness, you show them repeated failures, and you put on a big show of all the security you’re doing. And now, remember, even these tests were working about one time in twenty, which means that some nut contemplating this also has to think there’s at least some chance he’ll be caught and instead of glorious martyrdom, will be spending the rest of his life in Florence, Colorado, calling some guy “Daddy.”
The net effect is that, for all TSA’s failures, the combination of these factors makes it much harder for a bomb attack to work, which makes them less likely to be tried.
That doesn’t mean it will never happen, of course; as everyone and his brother has said, they only have to get it right once. But for an everyday airline passenger, this is at the bottom of the list of worries.