Delta Flight 253: We Love to Freak and It Shows

The thwarted Flight 253 attack (followed soon after by a man thwarted from relieving himself) has led to sustained outrage from numerous individuals. Some sensible souls have observed that secure cockpits and the wisdom of passengers have proven more reliable than draconian TSA measures and that, irrespective of any security measures in place, the more determined terrorists will go out of their way to affix explosive tools to their scrotums. (Funny how none of the authoritarians seem to remember United Airlines Flight 93, in which passengers prevented the plane from hitting its intended target. Did not Paul Greengrass’s Oscar-nominated agitprop beat this American know-how into our “never forget” ethos? Three years later, apparently not.) Other presumed experts, welcoming new opportunities for angry veins to pop out of their reactionary necks, have suggested that these Motor City airport shakedowns confirm American naïveté. And we are reminded, with the new threat of TSA officials questioning anybody who appears suspicious, that sacrificing our civil liberties without protest, in a manner more befitting of a passive demoiselle tied to the railroad tracks, is what present travel and “good” citizenship is all about.

Fortunately, Nate Silver has run some numbers that are too frequently overlooked when discussing American sacrifice, computing that one terrorist incident occurs for every 16,553,385 commercial airline departures. During the past decade, Silver concludes, your chances of being on a departure subjected to a terrorist incident has been 1 in 10,408,947.

But why stop there? Let’s put this present hysteria into additional perspective.

Chances that you will be struck by lightning in any given year: 1 in 750,000. (National Weather Service)

Chances that you will be killed by an asteroid: 1 in 700,000. (From astronomer Alan Harris, as reported at Discover)

Chances that you will be killed by excessive heat or cold of manmade origin: 1 in 639,989 (National Safety Council)

Chances that you will be killed by the ignition or melting of nightwear: 1 in 767,987 (National Safety Council)

Chances that you will be killed by contact with a venomous spider: 1 in 959,984 (National Safety Council)

Chances that you will be killed in a legal execution (e.g., the injection of thiopental after a hearty last meal): 1 in 79,999 (National Safety Council)

Chances that you will be killed in a fireworks discharge: 1 in 479,992 (National Safety Council)

In other words, you have a better chance of killing yourself by intentional self-harm (1 in 115, even if you don’t possess suicidal tendencies) or drowning in a water transport accident (1 in 10,940, even if you have no intention of ever stepping aboard a boat) than having your guts congeal into a fiery mess on a domestic flight. You are more likely to be killed by an asteroid or struck down by lightning than to get placed in a scenario in which you must take down an incompetent terrorist with a faulty detonator.

It seems that the Federal Aviation Association didn’t just abandon Common Strategy, the hijacking protocol devoted to preserving lives during skyjacking incidents. With the collusion of incompetent governmental bodies and politicians, it abandoned common sense.

Fearmongers like Rep. Peter King were happy to sample this limitless supply of Spanish fly only yesterday: “It’s important for the president or the secretary to be more out there and reminding people just how real this threat was and how deadly it is. For the first three months of this administration, they refused to use the word terrorism.”

One can only presume that the President was too busy fending off the grave national threat of death by venomous spider.

Let’s not permit any of the actual stats to deter us from ripping blankets from those pesky passengers who “claim to be sick” (shall we have designated sky doctors on flights debunking any and all future claims?) or from violating armpits to locate explosives that have a 1 in 16 million chance of existing. (The waning powers of underarm deodorant are another matter. I shall let more dutiful experts examine whether the TSA’s overeager armpit probing will bear some impact on the odds of dying from intentional self-harm. But I think it’s safe to say, without bothering to dip into the probability larder, that the chances of a passenger killing herself after being humiliated by a thoughtless goon are more likely than being killed in an MD-11 conflagration.)

We cannot, of course, return to the Time Before. Zero tolerance policies make us feel safer, even when such policies involve trying to expel a teenager from carrying a birth control pill or strip-searching a 13-year-old girl for having the temerity to carry ibuprofen. Passengers, however, can be trusted to be enforcers in ways that have eluded the TSA. Passengers proved especially creative in using seatbelts and medical kits to stop Richard Reid in 2002. But we still take off our shoes in airports to accommodate TSA guards on the ground. It’s the only way to be sure.

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano is presently being impugned by conservatives for declaring that “the system worked” on CNN. But these understandably angry reactions ignore the more troubling aspect contained within Napolitano’s remarks: Everybody reacted as they should. Fliers, both frequent and occasional, are now being asked to react to uncommon threats through an unclear TSA playbook designed around “predictable” human response. The DHS isn’t considering the possibility that improvised human reaction to a mostly improbable threat may present better results than any ineffectual security policy on the ground. What if all the wasteful pork devoted to these “Heck of a job” shenanigans were devoted instead to keeping passengers calm and dignified? If passengers were encouraged to look out after their fellow travelers, instead of clinging to their armrests alone and in fear, perhaps they would be encouraged to take creative risks when contending with future perps. Passengers can be just as creative as the bad guys. It’s rather amazing that we forget this. So why not devote resources to encourage these impulses?

Well, the possibilities of that happening are less likely than being killed by excessive heat or cold of manmade origin.

Terrorist Attacks in India

Forget the tomfoolery. Some serious news in India (live stream). 80 dead in Mumbai, hundreds injured.

NDTV: “A Briton who escaped the terrorist attack at the five-star Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai Wednesday night said the attackers specifically asked for American and British tourists.”

Bloomberg reports that “as many as 80 people were killed and 240 injured in India’s financial hub of Mumbai as gunmen armed with rifles and grenades raided five-star hotels in the country’s first terrorist attack targeting foreigners.”

Reuters: “The chief minister of Maharashtra state said on Thursday the situation in Mumbai was still not under control after attacks by gunmen across the financial hub.”

India Times: 11 policemen dead.

For current updates, see Mahalo and Mumbai Twitter tag for leads on stories.

(I am retweeting relevant news stories here.)

And How Many More Are There?

AOL: “Of the estimated 1,200 mostly Arab and Muslim men detained nationwide as potential suspects or witnesses in the Sept. 11 investigation, Benatta would earn a dubious distinction: Human rights groups say the former Algerian air force lieutenant was locked up the longest….But time did not stand still for Benatta: The clock ran for 1,780 days. The man detained at 27 was now 32.” (via Lee Goldberg)

Surely, They Acted In Their Best Interests Here and Didn’t Wait Two Weeks for Political Gain

Times Online: “Although reports that Mr Bush was woken at his ranch in Texas yesterday morning by a call from Tony Blair were denied by the White House, the two leaders had been in regular touch — as recently as Sunday — about British police efforts to track and capture those behind the aircraft plot. American authorities were told about a fortnight ago of an ‘accelerating plan’ to target US airlines flying from Britain to Los Angeles, Washington and New York. One official was quoted yesterday as saying that British authorities would not have arrested the suspects ‘if they hadn’t thought these guys were ready to go — the trip line had been reached — they dropped the hammer when they did because they thought they were out of time’.”

At the risk of coming across as a paranoid looneytune, this is damn fishy. Even if you’re waiting for the right moment for the terrorists to congregate so you can nab as much of a ring as you can, surely nabbing these guys as early as possible makes more sense — particularly when you have them all in your crosshairs. Either the British police are dumbasses or there’s clearly something else going on here. Why else would the White House deny that Bush and Blair had great morning phone sex? Unless, of course, Blair mumbled his suggestive imagery and begged Dubya to be his bottom.

Or Perhaps Some Folks Need a Surrogate Baby Blanket To Cling To

Cato Institute (PDF): “In the end, it is not clear how one can deal with the public’s often irrational — or at least erratic — fears about remote dangers. Some people say they prefer comparatively dangerous forms of transportation like the private passenger automobile (the cause of over 3 million deaths during the 20th century) to safe ones like commercial airlines because they feel they have more ‘control.’ But they seem to feel no fear on buses and trains — which actually are more dangerous than airliners — even without having that sense of control and even though derailing a speeding train or crashing a speeding bus is likely to be much easier for a terrorist than downing an airliner. And people tend to be more alarmed by dramatic fatalities — which the September 11 crashes certainly provided — than by ones that cumulate statistically. Thus, the 3,000 deaths of September 11 inspire far more grief and fear than the 100,000 deaths from auto accidents that have taken place since then. In some respects, fear of terror may be something like playing the lottery except in reverse: the chances of winning the lottery or dying from terrorism may be microscopic, but for monumental events that are, or seem, random, one can irrelevantly conclude that one’s chances are just as good, or bad, as those of anyone else.” (via Boing Boing)