I was having a conversation with a friend about the completely absurd new round of security theater being rolled out by the TSA. Let us be very clear, this is security theater as it makes traveling by air virtually no more safe than it was two weeks ago. Here are some key points from that conversation:
A quick web search suggests a consensus view that there are, on average, about 30,000 commercial flights in the US per day (the total number of flights per day is considerably higher since it includes a significant amount of general aviation usage, but the TSA policy is only affecting commercial travelers, if you want to board a Boeing Business Jet you can basically walk right on). How much successful terrorism could there be if we did a reasonable, but not complete, step down in security? If there were one successful attack every week, which sounds insanely high to us, then your odds of dying in such an attack, if you are contemplating one single plane flight, would be about one in 210,000. If there were one successful attack per month, your odds, for one single plane flight, would be about one in 900,000. If there were one successful attack per year, your odds, for one single plane flight, would be about one in 11,000,000. (We’re assuming, of course, that every attack would result in the death of everyone on the plane, which may not be true at all, as a number of the attacks might be attempted hijackings rather than bombings. We realize, as well, that the “one year” odds of dying would have to be increased to reflect the number of times per year you travel.)
How does this compare to the one year odds of dying in a number of more familiar manners? My friend found some data allegedly from the National Safety Council (whatever that is) from 1999:
Transport accidents (all types): one in 5,877
Occupant of a car: one in 18,752
Accidental fall: one in 20,728
Drowning: one in 77,308
Exposure to smoke, fire and flames: one in 81, 487
Exposure to forces of nature: one in 183,347
Accidental poisoning: one in 22,388
Suicide: one in 9,343
Homicide: one in 16,154
Perhaps our favorite:
Air and space transport incidents (e.g. A “normal” plane crash): one in 381,566
This last one is especially interesting. If we read this right, terrorists would have to blow up about a full plane every two weeks, all year, to get the odds of dying in a terrorist attack on a plane up to the odds of dying in an ordinary plane crash. (We have a feeling that this statistic includes general aviation and that the odds for dying in a small, private plane are MUCH higher. We’ve seen other estimates on the web that the odds of dying in a commercial plane crash on a one year basis are about one in a million.) Now, we realize that terrorism is especially frightening, but has anyone recently suggested that being in a “normal” plane crash isn’t one of the scariest things you can possibly imagine? So what does it say about our rationality that we think it’s rational to put ourselves to enormous inconvenience, stress and violation of privacy to try to deter a risk which is about equal to the risk we ALREADY HAVE in flying anyway – and no one is suggested radical changes to the maintenance, training and air traffic control procedures which presumably are our means of cutting back on “normal” plane crashes.
It should also be noted that if a terrorist’s goal is to terrorize Americans about air travel then they don’t even have to go through security. As has been pointed out by numerous security experts, committing a terrorist attack on the security line itself would be easily as effective in crippling our air traffic as attacking a plane.
One final note. My wife and I were in Fiji on our honeymoon earlier this year. We were preparing to board a flight back to the US and went through security. When we arrived at our gate area of the relatively small Nadi International Airport, there was a secondary screening for US-bound passengers. I’ve seen this before and, despite how silly it seemed, I watched as my wife was led into one half of a plywood box and I was led into the other and our stuff was searched a second time. In searching my carryon a local TSA contractor pulled out a small, one-ounch clear container of hand lotion. He turned to me and said: “Sir, this needs to be in a plastic bag.” I asked him why and he said that all toiletries need to be in a clear plastic bag. I tried to explain to him that the purpose of that rule is so that he can easily examine toiletries (plural) but since this was a single container, already clear, that the clear plastic bag served no purpose. He replied, “But Sir, this has to be in a clear plastic bag.” I went on: “You do realize that the clear plastic bag doesn’t provide any magical form of security, don’t you? You are aware that the whole point of the plastic bag is to see, clearly, the object that you are currently holding in your hand? That if this object were nefarious, a glad sandwich bag would not have any ability to protect us.”
His response: “Sir, I’m not worried about that. The rule is that this has to be in a clear plastic bag.”
In an effort to help security for all Americans he then said: “If you need a clear plastic bag, you can buy one from that shop over there,” and pointed across the departure area to a small pharmacy shop. I shook my head sadly. I pointed to two gentlemen sitting in the “secure” area of US departures, and said to my TSA person: “But what about those two guys? They both have 12-ounce glass bottles of Snapple iced tea. How did those get in? Were they in clear plastic bags?”
His response was fantastic and without irony: “No, they bought those bottles at the shop.” I handed him the lotion and told him he could keep it.
Let me be clear in all this. I don’t want to see any terrorist attacks. I don’t want to see anyone hurt. However, if we’re going to be serious about security touching people’s junk, humiliating breast cancer and urinary tract cancer survivors, groping screaming 3-year-olds, feeling up half-naked children, putting clear plastic bottles in clear plastic bags, and other absurd exercises in theatricality are not the place to start.
There’s an old statistics joke about terrorism:
Q: How do you ensure there will not be a terrorist’s bomb on your plane?
A: Bring your own bomb! The odds that there are two bombs on a plane is so remote…
LifeHacker has a tip today on how to ensure your camera equipment flies safely to your destination. Pack a gun in the bag! Apparently if you pack a weapon (in this case, a starter pistol) and declare it then the TSA registers your bag and takes special precautions to track it. Result? Your bag gets personal attention and is certain to arrive. Very clever…
One more example of the absurd security theater that we are enacting. Eventually we’ll have to study how real airline security works but for the time being, we’ll keep doing the absurd.