Lessons From the Underwear Bomber: Fix The Things That Are Actually Broken

Bruce Schneier yesterday posted about the dots that weren’t connected in the Christmas underwear-bomber plot. After something like this happens, it’s very, very easy to point figures and assign blame, and say “the system failed”. That may even be true in this case; I don’t know, and neither do you.

What I do know, though, is that it really doesn’t matter the least bit.

If people really wanted, they could virtually eliminate traffic deaths. How? By banning motorcycles, trucks, SUVs, and compact cars; by banning people from driving in the rain or at night or within forty-eight hours of a snowstorm. By banning people under the age of 25 from driving in groups of three or more. By banning people from driving with pre-teen children in their car. By banning people from having radios, iPods, or cellphones in their cars.

It would be grossly inconvenient. It would, in fact, be outright tyranny. It would work, though, sort of, because traffic fatalities are semi-random accidents. None of those things really address the causes of traffic deaths – they just eliminate conditions that increase their odds.

The same mentality really doesn’t work with airborne terrorism, though. We can ban brown people from flying, we can ban anyone who’s ever visited Yemen from flying, we can ban people from buying one-way tickets, and we can ban people from flying without luggage. That doesn’t really matter, because those sorts of preventative measures are extraordinarily easy to overcome, and may actually be detrimental. (Keeping in mind that we still don’t screen every piece of checked luggage, do we really want to force would-be terrorists to check luggage containing God-knows-what?)

Terror isn’t random, though – it’s deliberate. You can ban things left, right, and centre in the hopes of preventing it, but it won’t work. If the government decided that the only people allowed to fly were anglo-saxon single-mothers under the age of 30 employed by the federal government and pregnant with their second – not first or third or fourth – child, I guarantee that al-Qaeda or some other terrorist group would find and recruit just such an individual for an attack of some sort, because that’s what they do.

People like to say “the underwear bomber did this” or “the underwear bomber did that”, and this should have been enough of a red flag to prevent him from flying.

Lots of people pay cash. Lots of people fly without checked luggage. That doesn’t mean anything.

What could mean something is the cliched trifecta of crime: means, opportunity, and motive. Does the individual want to commit terror? (Motive.) Does the individual know how to carry out such a plan? (Means.) Does he or she have the chance to do so? (Opportunity.)

Some people think that just visiting Yemen is good enough reason to ban someone from flying, because they might have acquired dangerous skills or knowledge there. That’s pretty damned tyrannical, I think. Do you know what that kind of policy would look like, applied domestically?

Remember all the bitching about government repression at the 2008 RNC and DNC conventions? And at the 2004 ones? Imagine that the government had setup roadblocks at the state borders of Minnesota and Colorado several months before the conventions, and refused entry to everyone who’d ever used the internet.

In Yemen, there are people who can teach you how to make a bomb, and wage war against the West.

On the internet, there are websites that can teach you how to make a Molotov cocktail, and wage war against the State.

Really no difference, is there?

By that pretty outlandish standard, Abdulmutallab possibly shouldn’t have been allowed to board the plane. But hindsight is always 20-20, and the question really becomes “was there ample evidence beforehand that Abdulmutallab likely had the means, opportunity, and motive to commit an act of terror?” The answer to that is almost certainly “no”.

The intelligence community had uncorroborated evidence that he’d become radicalized. That’s motive, maybe. And, obviously, he booked a flight – that’s probably as good an opportunity as any. But did he have the means to carry out an attack? Nobody knew. So he’d been to Yemen. So what? If it was known and disseminated that he’d spend a fortnight at the compound of Ali al Baksheesh bin Yusef O’Pipebomber, regional Irish-Saudi bombmaker extraordinaire, then yeah, that would have implied a high probability that he posessed the means to make a jetliner go boom, and things might have been a little different.

But, you know what? It shouldn’t have fucking mattered, anyway. It’s supposed to be a reasonably free world, and people should be reasonably free to travel wheresoever they damn well please.

Barring spontaneous human combustion, which may or may not exist, human beings do not blow up aeroplanes. Bombs do.

The no-fly list is a joke. A sham. A charade. Mildly Orwellian security theatre. People are not threats.

If a mafia hitman wants to board a jet, let him. If some frothing-at-the-brain college student who hates America wants to board a jet, let him. If a mild-mannered business executive for a Fortune 500 company wants to board a jet, I say let him.

Just screen them all for weapons and explosives and other dangerous items, first.

Wait… that’s what we already do? Well, shit.

The underwear bombing was not an intelligence failure. It was an airport screening failure.

Nothing more, nothing less.

We put our faith in the screening system to detect dangerous items. Abdulmutallab beat that system by bringing a bomb on board the plane. It could just as easily have been someone else who the intelligence community had never heard of.

Improve the screening system, because that’s what failed.

Published in: General | on January 26th, 2010| No Comments »

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