Ed Driscoll

"From Checklist To Checkmate"

In TCS Daily, Josh Manchester writes that “Air travel today is an increasingly dehumanizing experience“:

One is forced to pack one’s belongings in a certain way; possibly not bring some key necessities, unless willing to risk losing to the baggage jungle; be treated as a number, while waiting in line at a security checkpoint; and then have to partially undress while finally entering the metal detector, sometimes barefoot on a tile floor that no one has thought to cover with even a used throw rug, even though we’ve been doing this now for five years.

But the most dehumanizing aspect of it all is the gnawing suspicion that thousands of people are merely performing a sort of ritualized security kabuki, and that none of it is doing any good when it comes to preventing attacks.

Sure, those who wish us harm now know that they can’t get aboard planes with boxcutters, or scissors, or explosives disguised as vials of Vidal Sassoon. But our checklist mentality in attempting to thwart them is largely a reactive measure, and only tells our enemies what their parameters are — inviting workarounds, deceit, and cleverness, rather than truly inspiring fear of detection.

The problem is that our bureaucrats focus on the composition of checklists of banned items instead of focusing on the mindset of an enemy. In combat, checklists are used regularly, but with different ends in mind: a platoon of Marines leaving a firm base in Iraq would go through numerous checklists of their equipment, weapons, communications, and so forth. But all of this is meant to put these potential problems to sleep — to reduce friction such that the platoon is then free to focus on the enemy it is about to encounter, or the population it is about to engage. In airport security though, the checklist is the goal, rather than the actions that it enables security personnel to then take. Checklists become a sort of static defense, rather than the fluid, mobile defense that would be more amenable to both deterring and catching terrorists.

Two of the more interesting scenes in ABC’s “The Path to 9/11” involved incidents where checklists weren’t involved. A female Filipino police captain is suspicious of one man standing around the scene of a fire that is consuming Ramzi Yousef’s apartment in Manila. Her suspicion is rewarded when the man is arrested and Yousef’s laptop is recovered. Later, Diana Dean, a US Customs Agent, succeeds in picking Ahmed Ressam out of the crowd of motorists entering the United States from Canada. It turns out his trunk is filled with explosives. In neither of these incidents were the arresting officers working from a checklist or a profile. They just trusted their instincts. The next time you fly, ask yourself if the same can be said for those screening the rest of the passengers around you.

Afterwards, Manchester writes, “How can we create a more robust airport security system? The principles to rely upon are those of unpredictability, adaptability, and decentralization”.

His ideas make perfect sense, thus ensuring that they’ll never come to fruition.

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