Security and Travel

Security and Travel:

John Derbyshire remarks that the future of commercial airline travel does not appear bright:

If, as seems likely, we are in an arms race between, on one side, crazy jihadis fired up with visions of paradise, and on the other, bored airport-security personnel on minimum wage, it looks inevitable that sooner or later the jihadis will score one. What's to be done?

• Stop issuing visas to citizens of Muslim countires? No, the jihadis are all over. This next batch is British-born.
Cops fear that 25 British-born Muslims are plotting to bomb Western airliners. The fanatics, in five groups, are now training at secret terror camps in Yemen … The British extremists in Yemen are in their early 20s and from Bradford, Luton and Leytonstone, East London. They are due to return to the UK early in 2010 and will then await Internet instructions from al-Qaeda on when to strike.
• Stop issuing visas to Muslims? Identified how? By name? What about this guy?

• Trust the feddle gubmint to maintain efficient databases on terror suspects? Ha ha ha ha ha!

• Trust the Department of Homeland Security to keep one step ahead of jihadi ingenuity? Woo-hoo hoo hoo!

• Vanquish evil at its source? Okay, how's that going? Not so well.

It seems to me that the future of commercial air travel is not bright. The business is already part-militarized; and military protocols don't mix well with commerce. A rash of successful terrorist bombings could kill off the whole industry.
The military actually handles this whole business of trans-Atlantic flights much better. I've taken military-chartered aircraft across the pond several times, and I'm always impressed with how well it compares to civilian flying. The military protocols make it much easier to do thorough security checks, smoothly and efficiently.

Too, the military prefers that you keep your rifle with you; and permits any knife under three inches in length as well. Since we still teach pugil stick fighting in the services, every one of those rifles remains a powerful weapon even without ammunition. I'd like to see the jihadi who could hijack a SAMS flight.

The TSA's personnel are less impressive than the military's; and its mindset is purely reactive. This latest nonsense about not having reading material in your lap during the last hour of the flight, for example -- the Christmas bombing was supposed to happen during the last hour of the flight, 'So obviously we need to lock that down!'

Yet the 9/11 hijackings, please recall, were designed to happen during the first hour of flight, when the planes would still be full of fuel. That was what made the planes such explosive and powerful weapons, capable of taking down skyscrapers. By focusing your eye on the last bombing, you've forgotten the first one. By obsessing about this latest threat, you've created a new opening for an attack based on the more dangerous model. They're in your OODA loop, as Ymar likes to say.

This time, that wasn't enough. The very thing that saved this last flight was jihadi inventiveness -- their very innovative bombing design didn't work, as prototypes often do not when first tried under field conditions. Their adaptiveness both allowed them to get the bomb on the plane, but was the source of the bomb's failure. This isn't the first time this problem has arisen for them, and it won't be the last.

We've got some good tools to apply to the problem -- our counterterror intelligence efforts had this guy's number, for example, if only someone had listened to them.

Meanwhile, why not take the train? At 217 MPH, you could link Atlanta to Boston in five hours; six, if you include a few minutes for stops in each Charlotte, Greensboro, Richmond, D.C., Philadelphia, NYC, and then Boston itself. We'd get a lot more out of such a line than China will out of its train: if you built it robustly enough, it could handle a substantial amount of the day-to-day business travel in America. If you're looking for a jobs program in a difficult economy, I can think of worse ones; unlike most government spending, we'd be getting something tangible out of it.

Meanwhile, train cars can be stronger than a plane's body, and can be made smaller: you can contain a bomb with one, I mean to say, segmenting the maximum amount of damage a single bomb can do. It's not a good answer for trans-Atlantic flights, but you could redirect a substantial amount of our national air travel onto high-speed rails, while foiling terrorist designs and benefitting the manufacturing and labor sectors of our economy at the same time.

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