How to combat terrorism successfully

Recently, as I was going through airport security screening at Los Angeles International Airport, the issue of how we can best keep terrorist attacks on civilians to a minimum once again went through my mind.

Fortunately, there has not really been a successful attack by foreigners since Sept. 11, 2001. Has that been due at least in part to airport screenings? Should this screening be increased, decreased or maintained as it is?

Preliminarily, we must recognize that the pressure on our president, whether it is George W. Bush, Barack Obama, or anyone else, to keep such an attack from re-occurring must be crushing! Consequently, the incentives to continue or even strengthen actions to keep us safe understandably cannot be minimized. Why? Because if perceived protections were to be decreased and an attack were to occur, the political recriminations would be enormous and unrelenting — even if the absence of particular safety measures would not have made any difference. This once again reinforces the fact that in politics, reality itself is irrelevant. It is only the appearance of reality that matters!

But do any of these airport security measures actually do anything more than appear to keep us safer? Of course, I do not have any particular access to information to help us answer that question. But most knowledgeable people in the area of aircraft security said that the most effective thing we could do after 9/11 was to strengthen the cockpit doors to make it impossible to force them open — and then to state publicly that the doors would be kept locked while in flight regardless of anything going on in the cabin. This has already been done, and has probably contributed a great deal to aircraft safety.

Otherwise, the government bureaucracy always seems to be fighting yesterday’s battles — and sometimes in a stupid fashion.

I remember a few years ago going through airport security twice before boarding an airplane to come home from a trip to Turkey in which the security personnel seized fingernail clippers and small pocket knives from passengers. Then once the plane took off and reached altitude, the flight crew handed out stainless steel forks and knives to use for dinner that were far more dangerous than anything that had been confiscated.

I also once observed airport security personnel require an elderly lady to get out of her wheelchair and walk through a metal detector, while her attendant was allowed to push her wheelchair completely around the metal detector so that neither the wheelchair nor the attendant were screened at all. That is government bureaucracy in action.

I also noted with dismay that once when my elderly and frail mother, who was the widow of a federal judge and literally a “little old lady from Pasadena,” flew with me to go north to see my sister, she was forced to spread her legs and arms for additional security screening. As a result of the indignity, hassle and physical ordeal of this experience, she chose never to fly again.

A good friend of mine says that since 9/11, he believes that hundreds of thousands of Americans have actually been killed by terrorists. What does he mean by that? The man-hours lost waiting to board airplanes, which become man-years, and man-lives. Those idly waiting to board are losing parts of their lives.

So in a cost-benefit analysis, does taking our shoes off as a requirement for us to board an airplane really make us safer? I truly doubt it.

Should we have an “express lane” at airports for people who have been previously screened to be truly low security risks? This would reduce wasted time and money for everyone. Actually there is such a program available in concept, but it has not really been put into effect. We spend lots of money to slow people down, but very little to speed things up.

And how much does this “cottage industry” of airport security screening actually cost? It adds about a $10 charge to every airplane ticket.

When I boarded my plane recently, I counted 21 Transportation Security Administration personnel just at the American Airlines Terminal alone who were involved with the screening process. This has to be really expensive. Are we getting our money’s worth? It’s hard to believe that we are.

In that regard, everyone must understand that there is no such thing as absolute safety in a free society, or anywhere else. If someone really wants to engage in wanton or terrorist acts, it would not be too hard to be successful. So what I am about to say may get my name on a list somewhere, or even get me investigated, but I anticipate that any semi-intelligent and creative mind could think up at least 10 viable ways to bring down a civilian airplane that do not include shoes or boxcutters. They might very well die themselves along the way, but it could be done. These people may be radicals and extremists, but most of their leaders are not dumb.

And that is only addressing the vulnerability of civilian airplanes, which actually are probably yesterday’s tragedies. How can we possible protect against such wanton acts in every train or bus station, theater, or sports stadium?

So we and our government must not naively think, much less say, that our safety in today’s world can be guaranteed. That is not at all to say we should let down our guard. But instead of taking off our shoes, we should spend our preventive resources on things that actually work, and fewer upon those that just appear to work, like airport security. So when we ask the government to protect us from potential terrorist acts, “just helping us to feel safer” is not an effective usage of resources.

What are the things that have the best chance to be successful? In addition to a strong military, the most effective are intelligence and undercover activities that allow us to learn in advance who are our biggest threats and what those people are doing. Second is to use insights to anticipate society’s biggest vulnerabilities, and employing monitors, safety measures and procedures that can best reduce the chances of harm.

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)