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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.

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2 Comments

  1. Ed, good points all around, and I retweeted your link a few minutes back. I don’t dispute your core claims, but I want to suggest that there is a bit of apples and oranges in the relative probabilities. Airplanes hold hundreds of people, so the probably of an individual on a single departure being subject to a terrorist incident is higher than the 1 in 10 million.

  2. Chances that the mainstream media is trying to goad you into another round of worthless mild hysteria instead of reporting actual news or doing even the bare minimum of investigative work: 1 in 1

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