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.

Harry Potter and the Order of the TSA?

The BBC reports that J.K. Rowling was stopped at an airport because she would not part from her manuscript. Airport security wanted to check in her manuscript. Rowling relented and was eventually allowed on board the plane back to the UK with her notes bound with rubber bands.

It’s good to know that the TSA are using their energies to go after the real terrorists: bestselling authors who carry such dangerous items as manuscripts. Let us consider first that the paper is flammable. And it is just possible that an al-Qaeda operative, one who has spent several years in the mountains perfecting his throwing skills, might steal one page of the MS and fold it into a paper airplane. The paper airplane, carefully targeted at a flight attendant’s eyes, would subsequently blind the attendant, creating distress among the plane’s staff, and causing the pilot to unlock the cabin door to investigate this ruckus. The plane would then be successfully overtaken by the operatives.

One can never be too careful in this age of terror. I am grateful that the TSA has left no stone unturned, save for the rubber bands, which might put out a flight attendant’s eye just as adeptly as a paper airplane.

Is JetBlue Racist?

I fly JetBlue all the time, but this terrible story from Raed Jarrar, who was asked to remove his T-shirt because it contained Arabic script that “offended passengers” (never mind that nobody could read the shirt), has me rethinking the airline. Calls will be made tomorrow. (via Maud)

[UPDATE: It’s worth noting that, last October, Lorrie Heasley was ejected from a Southwest flight for wearing a Meet the Fockers parody T-shirt. Heasley vowed to file a civil rights lawsuit, but I can find no trace of it. But in a New York Times article, two law professors remarked that the Heasley case doesn’t apply to the First Amendment because only the government can violate the Constitution. Writing in Salon, Andrew Salon remarked upon this troubling predicament.]

One Person’s “Tiny Facial Movement” is Another’s Parched Throat

Wall Street Journal: “The people-based program — called Screening Passengers by Observation Technique, or SPOT — began undergoing tests at Boston’s Logan Airport after 9/11 and has expanded to about a dozen airports. Trained teams watch travelers in security lines and elsewhere. They look for obvious things like someone wearing a heavy coat on a hot day, but also for subtle signs like vocal timbre, gestures and tiny facial movements that indicate someone is trying to disguise an emotion. TSA officers observe passengers while consulting a list of more than 30 questionable behaviors, each of which has a numerical score. If someone scores high enough, an officer approaches the person and asks a few questions.”

Like I Said: Mobile Solitary Confinement

Rory Ewins offers a spirited take on what the UK airline security means: “Sure, many passengers will adapt, now that they know the score—in the short term. But for UK domestic carriers, this is a nightmare. If passengers have items they don’t want to entrust to the hold, their inclination will now be to travel by train. For the short-haul tourist carriers, this is where we find out whether a few days away is worth that much hassle, and how many untaken trips that translates into. Even a drop in passenger numbers of ten or twenty percent could send some airlines to the wall. How easy is EasyJet now?”

Smile! You’re on Canted Camera!

The Harper’s Iraq lies piece with sources, efforts of which originated in this MeFi thread.

And fingerprinting and photographing foreign visitors is overkill. It’s bad enough that visitors are subjected to a silly little quiz (“Have you ever been a Communist?”) that, embarassingly, demonstrates how little this nation has evolved from its McCarthyist paranoia half a century ago, or that this is one of the few Western nations in which citizens and non-citizens are split up after a twelve-hour transatlantic flight, rather than conjoined in one queue (not always the case going the other way), with instructions articulated only in English. In fact, nothing of these questions, the fingerprints or the photographs is mentioned on the DHS page referencing procedure (again, only in English).

But I don’t see how photographs compared against databases will stop the true professionals, particularly when any real criminal can undergo plastic surgery, grow a beard, shave his eyebrows, or do any number of things to avoid being detected by a guy at customs who ain’t exactly the brightest bulb at the airport.

What’s interesting about the US VISIT program is that it’s actually been in the works since 2000, which suggests that this privacy-invasive program isn’t a direct countermeasure to Sept. 11. The Post article quotes spokesman Mike Milne as follows, “If we have your information in the system, it protects you as a passenger from someone being able to use your documentation.” Oh really? So say Joe Visitor comes into the nation, gets his picture taken by the DHS, and then gets his credit card stolen by some serious thief who uses the card (before Joe Visitor cancels it) to buy “questionable” goods like bullets or raw compnents with which to construct an explosive. Given what we’ve seen of the INS wilfully damning without burden of proof, and such sickening stories as the treatment of Maher Arer by U.S. authorities, can we really count on a non-ICC compliant government to stand by habeas corpus? (And here are a few more side issues: (1) How secure are the databases? (2) What other information is being compared against the photograph? (3) If accused of a charge, does the visitor have access to this data or would their right to fair trial be obviated by a military-style tribunal? (4) Given the current spending spree of the U.S. government — projected to hit a $500 billion deficit in five years — is there any possibility that the government will sell these databases off to a marketing organization to stave off insolvency?)

But the silliest thing about US VISIT is that anyone coming into the United States by land will not be photographed. Given how easy it is to book a flight to Canada, rent a car and head south, this suggests to me that the program is more of a show of force rather than a legitimate countermeasure.

And it’s sure to perform wonders for foreign relations. In response, Brazil has begun performing the same tactics on Americans. The U.S. Embassy had this to say in response: “While we acknowledge Brazil’s sovereign right to determine the requirements for entry into Brazil, we regret the way in which new procedures have suddenly been put in place that single out US citizens for exceptional treatment that has meant lengthy delays in processing, such as the case today with a more than nine hour delay for some US citizens arriving at Rio’s international airport.” But is the Embassy more concerned with the delays or the singling out of American passengers? If the latter, the irony is dripping wet.

[1/23/06 UPDATE: Two years later, security regulations are now accepted as easily as brushing one’s teeth twice a day. While I recognize this post as a particularly heavy-handed one, I am not sure what to make of my feelings now. I feel like an absolute hypocrite. For it seems impossible now to imagine a traveling existence in which one is not required to hand over one’s ID or to be subjected to rent-a-cops who have the false impression that they’re today’s answer to Dirty Harry. This is the kind of Orwellian show of force that angered me as a teenager. And I wonder just how much of a prisoner I am in my own country, and why I (and most Americans) have come to accept this, even when the reasons behind the War on Terror have been rendered bunk. I don’t really feel any more secure than I did before September 11, but I have come to accept this existence as part of the risk of everyday existence and don’t let it get in the way of anything I do, save of course the whole handing the ID over thing.]