The terrorist plot to blow up from 7-10 planes with liquid explosives will once again increase the fear of flying. After the 9/11 horrendous attacks, U.S. domestic air travel was down by over 10 per cent for two years, and international travel on American airlines declined much further. The magnitude of this response went far beyond what could be explained by either the increased objective risk of flying or the greater time spent going through security. For even assuming that 3 planes a year on American airlines continued to be exploded by suicide bombers, air travel would still be a lot safer than traveling by car and bus, two major alternatives to air travel.
Many people stopped flying in the aftermath of the 9/11 attack because they feared being on a plane with suicide bombers, a fear that far transcended any objective risk of flying. Since such fears are part of the makeup of human nature--presumably due to biological evolution over time--fear should be incorporated in any useful analysis of the factors that determine willingness to fly, or to engage in other activities that are vulnerable to terrorist attacks.
I anticipate that as evidence of the destructiveness and scope of this latest terrorist plot unfold, many leisure and business travelers will once again be too frightened for a while to travel by plane, especially on international flights to and from the United States. The drop in air travel will not be as great as after the 9/11 attacks because this plot was foiled before any successful missions were carried out, and because travelers are more inured to terrorist threats than they were before that defining event.
It is clearly important to develop an efficient and effective system to reduce the likelihood of successful terrorism. Security will have to be continually updated and made more thorough as new information is acquired about terrorist plans. For example, the inconvenience of air travel will increase further as airport security adjusts to preventing liquid bombs from getting through security checks. Unfortunately, there is an ongoing battle between the ingenuity, dedication, and fanaticism of terrorists, and effective security measures. Terrorists continue to probe until they discover weaknesses in airport security. If they find it too difficult to mount terrorist attacks on planes, they may concentrate on other targets. Trains are an obvious example since security at train stations is generally very lax.
Still, universal security measures at airports or other sensitive points are not enough. Although civil libertarians criticize "profiling" of travelers and others, and government officials deny they engage in it, profiling is a necessary part of any reasonably effective security system. Groups that should be scrutinized carefully differ over time and among region of the world. For example, the Tamils are responsible for terrorism in Sri Lanka, and the IRA over a decade ago bombed London and other parts of England. Young Muslim males of Pakistani and Arab background have been responsible for the vast majority of recent terrorist activities in America, Britain, and continental European countries. This includes 9/11, the British 7/7 subway bombings of last year that killed over 50 people, the Spanish train bombings of the year before which killed almost 200 people, and other actual or thwarted attacks in the West. Therefore, young males from these groups should receive especially close scrutiny at airports and other public places.
Objectors to profiling of particular groups complain that this would subject many innocent members of groups being profiled to obtrusive and sometimes embarrassing searches and even harassment. No question that profiling of a group inevitably means that innocent members of that group would experience greater delays and more unpleasant encounters than would innocent members of groups not profiled. This is regrettable, but there is no effective alternative to profiling when one or a few groups pose far greater threats than do the rest of the population. To limit the discomfort and anger caused by profiling, members of the profiled groups should be treated politely and with dignity. They should also be reminded that they too are being protected from terrorist activities by a small fringe.
Those objecting to profiling potential terrorists usually want to subject everyone to the same detailed examination and inquiry. However, when potential terrorists are part of a group that constitutes only a small fraction of the population, searching everyone with the same detailed care at airports or at other venues would be needlessly costly and time consuming. This would slow down and thereby reduce air travel and other vulnerable group activities. It would also lead to loud complaints by those affected after the fear of terrorism had abated.
People in the United States and other free countries are gradually realizing that effective conduct of the war on terrorism means that it is no longer possible to have the full complement of liberties they have been accustomed to. Terrorists and suspected terrorists may be subjected to psychological pressures in order to gain vital information, pressures that would not have been acceptable in the past. In addition, government anti-terror agencies will be listening in on some phone conversations, they will inspect some emails, they will check some spending and bank accounts, they will monitor travel, and in other ways too they will intrude on traditional liberties. Of course, profiled groups, including innocent members, would be subject to more extensive surveillance than others. Unfortunately, mistakes will continue to be made, as in the detention by Britain a few months ago of some Muslim men who turned out to be innocent.
As readers of this blog and my other writings know, I have little confidence in government. Posner's discussion of mistakes by the FBI is just an additional, although important, example of this. But like it or not, government actions have to be the first line of defense against terrorism. While vigilance is required to prevent zealous public officials from overstepping their legitimate boundaries, they must have enough power to fight terrorism effectively. Clearly, some of these powers would not have been accepted in peacetime before 9/11, but since free societies are vulnerable to suicidal and other terrorists, these societies have to limit certain freedoms in order to more effectively fight terrorism. Hopefully, the vast majority of traditional freedoms can be preserved.