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01/28/2010

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Indy

Excellent post, but I might quibble with the last sentence. First, airplanes are uniquely dangerous and vulnerable methods of mass transport. Unlike a ground-based system, there is no possible stationary fail-safe. Merely disabling a critical system of an aircraft can lead to its destruction and the deaths of everyone on-board. Taking control of one can result in untold amounts of damage if the vehicle, along with its vast stock of kerosene, is weaponized, as happened in the 9/11 attacks. There are just no comparable scenarios for trains.

Second, planes are inherently weak due to engineering constraints. I once took the Boeing tour at their large jet aircraft assembly facility in Everett, Washington. They have on display a cross-section of a 747 which looks like a giant slice cut out of a salami. Not a single ounce is wasted, and one cannot help but notice the incredible thinness of the aluminum exterior, which one can almost indent with his fingers like the skin of a soda can.

I have no doubt that a mere few grams of well-placed explosive, less than that required to be fatal to even a single human being, could easily punch a substantial hole in it - leading to at least sudden depressurization and at worst to a catastrophic failure and tearing-apart of the airframe.

Third, aircraft incidents tend to take spoil the evidence trail. A plane goes down mysteriously and it can easily take months to discover what happened, if any firm conclusion is in fact ever achieved. If a small explosion at 30,000 feet yields a mass of shrapnel spread across 100 acres of Michigan farmland, or at the bottom of Lake Erie, it can be nearly impossible to attribute the incident to a terrorist attack.

Finally, taking out airplanes is perceived as highly sensational, symbolic, and more likely to achieve massive press coverage. The ability of terrorist groups to overcome our defenses on our most highly defended mode of transport would significantly undermine our belief in our ability to secure ourselves against attack.

There are perfectly legitimate reasons to (seemingly) disproportionately focus our efforts on airline travel. Nevertheless, the point remains, that the most difficult an air attack becomes, the more attractive other forms of attack become.

Fernanda Gomez

Excellent post, thank you for posting it, I enjoyed the reading

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Obadiah Shoher

Sir,

Though having enjoyed your interesting article, I have to point out several fatal errors in your assumptions.

Marginal utility of airport security increases is not just diminishing, but exactly zero as I've pointed out after 9/11 attacks (The Security Bug, etc). To my knowledge, airport security did not intercept a single trained terrorist in the past two decades. Any professional, indeed any ingenuous person can quite simply circumvent any security precautions (I've predicted the body bombs ten years ago).

Terrorist attacks on airlines are not commonplace for the reasons very different from hapless airport security. First and foremost, terrorist preparations worldwide are disrupted by massive intelligence work of British, American, German, Israeli, Saudi, and to a lesser extent - Russian and French agencies. Also, for many years airplane terrorism has been made pointless by a coordinated international policy of not allowing hijackers a safe haven of the type they previously enjoyed in Beirut, Tripoli, Entebbe, and Amman. After 9/11, America quickly moved to close the loophole that allowed terrorists to use hijacked planes to target civilian infrastructure. By now, standing orders call for shooting down the hijacked planes which come close to cities. Airplane terrorism, therefore, is largely pointless by now, and only minor cells are interested in it. Regarding the Christmas bomber, bin Laden praised his operation well afterwards just as he praises any of his ideological franchisees; it was not "an al Qaeda plot."

Terrorists are not attacking much simpler targets, either. No amount of security would preclude bombings of airport counters, hotels abroad frequented by Americans, their excursion buses, or individual tourists. Near-absence of terrorist attacks on America's soft underbelly abroad shows that airport precautions are superfluous and are mostly enacted to show the domestic government's paternalistic concern over its citizens.

Please also note that, assuming that terrorists want to strike, increased airport security does not prevent the attacks, but simply shifts them to less defended targets. In that sense, too, its marginal utility is zero.

N.E.H.

Interesting. Just one observation, increased vigilance, observation, and imposed security by governments and the public, usually results in actions or planned actions taken by saboteurs or terrorists that much more difficult to realize. Resulting in less actions.

Remember, we are at War and will be into the foreseeable future.
They are watching and waiting for an oppurtune moment to strike. So we all need to keep our eyes and ears open and not fall into a sense of safety that a lull brings.

jdgalt

We are not at war. The terrorists are merely criminals, and few in number, and our police and intelligence services are more than adequate to deal with the threat they pose, which is small.

The terrorists' agenda can be inferred from their actions. It is: (1) Gain ongoing publicity for their demands; (2) Hamper or destroy commerce, especially new technologies and commerce between Western countries and the Middle East; and (3) Hamper or destroy the openness of Western society, especially its cornerstone which is the presumption of innocence.

We can thwart (1) by having media refuse to report the names or agendas of terrorists. (Credit for this idea belongs to science fiction author Dean Ing, who predicted the problem in his 1970 book "Soft Targets".)

To thwart (2), I suggest a range of measures both technical and legal. On the technical side I would suggest that defense be one of the design criteria for new facilities, especially those that will be used in kinds of commerce that terrorists have attacked before. (Besides international trade centers, I'm thinking of abortion clinics, animal testing labs, operations growing genetically modified food crops, and the makers and sellers of sport utility vehicles.) On the legal side I would expand "hate crime" laws to protect all of these; or better yet, simply have the courts become willing to let juries make reasonable inferences of intent-to-bully (thus allowing the terrorists to be charged with coercion) when one of these businesses is attacked.

But goal (3) is by far the worst kind of damage the terrorists can do to our country, and it can only be thwarted if we insist on treating them as criminals and the situation as a few large but isolated crimes -- NOT some kind of ongoing emergency, and definitely not a war. Historically, when this kind of "emergency" is successfully parlayed into a permanent expansion of government power, the result has always been dictatorship. We must not go there.

I want our constitutional form of government back.

AuBricker

Judge Posner never fails to impress me with his wonderful books, and I envy his legal knowledge and skills. Nevertheless, I always feel a chill when his economic theory of law makes mention to the value of a human life.

But, damn, he expresses his opinions so convincingly.

Kiran

Basically, I grew up following my father's ideas and ideology – a political science teacher who formidably influenced my formative years, greatly. However, oftentimes, my dad and I firmly disagree on recent past events (that have strong relevance with today).

Mr Posner is very much an extraordinarily admirable public intellectual in America. However, his passion with “economics” vis-à-vis terrorism is perhaps ill-equipped.

Mr Posner makes terrifically wobbly argument vis-à-vis global terrorism: “In the wake of the attempted Christmas bombing of an American airliner en route to Detroit, there has been a flurry of new security measures. These measures are costly, primarily in delaying the passage of passengers through airport security, but there are also the expenses of additional screening equipment, such as body scanners, and of additional security personnel, such as armed guards on flights and additional screeners in the intelligence agencies.”

Goodness, the main point/argument should be about combating/curbing terror attempts; definitely not the dubious “economic” impacts that Mr Posner argues for (no matter how “allegedly” right). Sadly, a person who I deeply admire, on this count (among other things) is making opaque arguments.

jimbino

Subjecting young male Muslims to heightened scrutiny at the airport is fundamentally un-American and unfair to those who are innocent. But if it is to be justified in the name of protecting the American people, those innocent individuals who pay the price should be compensated by the American people by paying them, say, $50 for each time they are taken out of line and subjected to a body search.

Randy

Remember, we are at War and will be into the foreseeable future.
They are watching and waiting for an oppurtune moment to strike. So we all need to keep our eyes and ears open and not fall into a sense of safety that a lull brings.

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Governments should allow airport security agencies to invest as much money as possible and gain the most advanced and innovative equipment in the security check area like scanners, X-ray devices and advanced information systems for monitoring risks .

Such advances will save time, improve the privacy of the person involved, and of course will increase passengers' security.

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Interesting. Just one observation, increased vigilance, observation, and imposed security by governments and the public, usually results in actions or planned actions taken by saboteurs or terrorists that much more difficult to realize. Resulting in less actions.

Remember, we are at War and will be into the foreseeable future.
They are watching and waiting for an oppurtune moment to strike. So we all need to keep our eyes and ears open and not fall into a sense of safety that a lull brings.

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I think all countries must be have strongest rules in airports.

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we understand much more about the interconnectedness of the world in particular that grievances bred elsewhere can have catastrophic consequences half a world away, and that the ease of transport, international communications and personal movement between countries has made it easier than ever before not only to plot evil but to deliver it. We may not have seen the end of American unilateralism, but we can wave goodbye to isolationism.

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Excellent Post ! I think it is necessary step taken by Government against terrorism. Optimal Protection is requirement of Air Lines. And What I think all airlines must have strongest rule in airports.

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