Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Terror in the Skies, Again?

Even thought there has been a lot said about this here and there, I only just heard about it yesterday on my way home from work while listening to the radio.

Annie Jacobsen recently wrote an article Terror in the Skies, Again? in According to Ms. Jacobsen, she was flying across country with her husband and small child and she witnessed, what appeared to her and reportedly many others on the plane, a "dry run" of a terrorist act.

I've looked around the internet at what people are saying about this and I generally have seen several different reactions. People either believe the story and are terrified by it, people think that it was an over reaction probably inspired racist tendencies (the men being middle eastern in appearance), or a publicity stunt created to expose to more people.

In this post 9/11 world, the first reaction is completely understandable. I think there is little doubt that terrorists are still plotting to undermine our efforts in the war on terror and to strike back because of our actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and many of the other financial and political pressure we have put on them. We will have more terrorist attacks against us, the question is only when and how big. Our job and the job of the government is to make it as hard as possible for another attack to happen, and if it does happen, to minimize the damage.

The second reaction is also very possible. At least from the account that she gives, these men were acting very strange and I haven't seen anyone that has denied that what she said really did happen. Is it possible that they were just a Syrian band on their way to a gig at a casino? Yep. Perhaps they all have overactive bladder syndrome, requiring frequent use of the bathroom. Perhaps the man with the McDonald's bag likes to eat while he's doing his business. All of these things are very possible. After all, the FBI questioned them and checked them after they landed and didn't have enough, apparently, to detain them, though I wouldn't be surprised if all of their names, while not previously being on the terrorist watch list, are on that list now.

Nevertheless, to just blame it on racist tendencies is being unfair and is used to cloud the real issues. Ms. Jacobsen's conclusion is that because of the political incorrectness of profiling, we are putting logic and our security second behind not wanting to offend any particular group. On this point, I agree. Profiling is how we narrow down the possible suspects from millions to a more manageable number. People point out that Al Qaeda terrorists can be of any nationality, race, sex, and age and they are correct. There have been a small number of Americans that have been identified as Islamic terrorists. Nevertheless, it is obvious that hijackers and terrorists tend to be young males from the middle east. Why do you think that every hijacker on 9/11 fit this profile? Was it because Osama Bin Laden thought foreign Arabs would be less suspicious and find it easier to get past security? Or was it because finding 19 American born, white, blonde hair, blue eyes terrorists willing to fly airplanes into buildings for the glory of Allah a little more difficult? Let's not infringe upon anyone's rights, but lets not be stupid either.

The third reaction seems to be just a blind lashing out based on the second reason. It's true that women' has received a lot of hits on their site but how can anyone believe that this kind of story could have been orchestrated just for the purpose of publicity, especially in light of the fact that TSA has basically confirmed that most everything that Ms. Jacobsen reported did in fact happen.

The fact remains that nothing happened. The plane landed safely. No one got hurt. So, what should we do with this information? Even if these men were everything they said they were, some of their actions could have been the same actions of real terrorists that in the end could have permitted them to perform their act.

Apparently there were air marshals on board. That would definitely have made it harder for a terrorist to carry out whatever plan they had, but air marshals can't be on every flight across the country.

One suggestion that I heard just after the 9/11 attacks was to redesign new planes that don't have a cockpit door that leads to the passenger area. I know that reinforced cockpit doors have been installed making it harder for them to be broken down, but this doesn't keep a terrorist from using someone as a hostage to get the pilots to open it from the inside. The cockpit could have its own entrance from the outside. Perhaps the pilots would need their own lavatory or something as well. Now this wouldn't stop a hijacking, necessarily, but it absolutely would keep a plane from being used as a missile. During a hijacking situation, the pilot would have little more choice than to land at the nearest airport.

We should also relax some of the restrictions put in place on the TSA to prevent profiling. This doesn't mean that only middle eastern men will ever be looked at, but it allows them to put together, perhaps, a number of different aspects of a profile and match it up with people to make their work a lot more effective. While there's a small chance that grandma with her knitting is going to blow up the plane, maybe we should focus on the Syrian with a stick of dynamite down is pants.