Three men go on a camping trip. On the way there they’re told by a park ranger to be careful because their campsite is located near some dangerous animals. What dangerous animals? The park ranger won’t say, because that would be profiling. “Just keep in mind”, he tells them, “that people who camped there in the past never made it back alive.”
As the sun goes down, they pick up their hunting rifles and stand watch for dangerous animals. But they don’t know what dangerous animals, they’re watching out for. And they don’t want to profile. So they keep watch for crickets as much as for bears, and for deer as much as for mountain lions. A rabbit, an owl or a bullfrog all equally frighten them out of their wits. They open fire on mosquitoes and stand watch against monstrous raccoons. By the end of the night, they can hardly see anything or react to danger. That morning, a pair of mountain lions stroll lazily into their camp and find them snoring away.
This little story illustrates why we can’t do things this way. Because it’s stupid and it’s suicidal. Human survival is based on recognizing threats, not on reacting to all stimuli because one of them might be threatening, but we don’t want to single it out and make it feel bad. If we actually did things that way, we’d all be dead by now.
There are three stages to coping with a threat. First you have to recognize the threat. Second, you have to formulate a plan for dealing with the threat. Third, you have to implement the plan.
So far we haven’t even made to the first stage. We haven’t recognized the threat. At the airline security level, we insist that the threat is completely random. Anyone at all could be a terrorist. There’s no specific ideology or countries that are sources of terrorism. Instead terrorism is like some sort of disease. Anyone at all could be a carrier. And so we have to watch out for everyone. All the time. And like those hunters, we’re either on alert all the time or we’re completely apathetic. We’re either security manic or security depressive. We go from letting everyone pass to strip searching everybody. There’s no rational approach to danger, because we don’t have a rational plan. We just go from 0 to 60 every time there’s a new threat.
Since we failed the first stage, we can’t move on to the second stage. We can’t recognize the threat, so every plan we formulate to deal with is doomed from the start. Instead of addressing a known threat, we go down a lot of blind alleys. Technology keeps getting abused as a shortcut in another episode of security theater, as new machines are bought and installed. But technology is ‘dumb’. Machines are a tool, not a plan. Like any tool, they can let us do more. But like all tools, they’re only as smart as the people using them. And the people using them are trained to be dumb.
‘Dumb’ is the only policy that can exist in the absence of intelligent threat recognition. To be ‘smart’ you have to make it to the second stage. When you can’t even identify the threat, then you’re hopelessly stuck on stupid, no matter what your IQ might be, or how many diplomas are hanging on your wall. And if you’re just a glorified security guard following a ‘dumb’ policy, then the outcome is going to be really dumb.
Technological solutions to terrorism driven by ‘dumb’ policy are a dead end. No machine can defeat a human being, because the human being can step outside the box and cheat. Any automated security approach might work 99 times out of a 100, but it won’t work 100 times out of a 100. Because it has a weakness. And that weakness is inflexibility. Every automated solution has a way around it. It’s just a matter of finding it and exploiting it.
When human beings play a game of cat and mouse, they think about what their opponent will do. Machines can’t think. Neither can bureaucracies. They can only enact policies. And when those policies are ‘dumb’ in addition to inflexible, then the bureaucracy is no better than a machine. And a machine can be beaten. The people we’re up against don’t have to think about what we will do. They know what we will do. All they have to do is find a way around it. Then in response to their latest attempt, we look for a way to close the hangar, after the plane has already flown away.
In response to 9/11, we obsessively focused on preventing anyone from carrying sharp objects onto domestic flights. Every time the terrorists tried something, we responded with new ‘dumb’ security regimes. We banned liquids in carry on luggage, made fliers take off their shoes and now we run passengers through naked scanners. When the terrorists think of something else, we’ll have to ban that too or find some new way to inconvenience and humiliate anyone who exercises the “privilege” of flying. As plans go, this is as dumb as buying a bulletproof vest, 6 months after you’ve been shot.
Our security agencies are actually pretending that this hopelessly reactive approach is a “plan”. It’s not a plan, it’s a high tech buzzword rich version of Keystone Kops. We don’t have a plan. We have an approach. And our approach is to try and interdict weapons and bombs that terrorists might try to smuggle on board. Since we’re focusing on the tools, not the terrorists– everyone is a suspect. Imagine if after every stabbing, we disregarded the physical description of the perpetrator, and instead went after everyone who owns a knife. An hour later, there would be thousands of angry citizens arrested for having kitchen knives, bread knives, boxcutters and anything with a blade. And then the police department would be doing things, the same way that the TSA operates now.
The problem isn’t knives or bombs. It’s Muslim terrorists. The knives or bombs are just some of the tools they use. But it’s the terrorists who are the threat, not the tools. By now we know that explosives can be smuggled in liquid containers and shoes and powder and body cavities and countless other ways. Even if everyone actually flew naked and without luggage, there would still potentially be a way to blow up a plane, including surgical implants. The TSA has not actually stopped a single act of terrorism. All it has done is inconvenience and humiliate travelers.
Saddled with a political taboo against identifying Muslim terrorists as the threat, security agencies have been left with no choice except to focus on the tools. If we don’t know anything about the attacker, then we have to think about the weapons. But from a security standpoint, it’s not possible to reliably interdict a weapon before it’s used. Not when the weapon can be almost anything at all.
Law enforcement exists to interdict perpetrators during a crime or to capture them afterward. Trying to prevent a crime from being carried, when we can’t even identify the potential perpetrators, and to do so only based on outdated information about the potential weapons they might use, while trying to screen them from among tens of thousands of other people, without actually slowing down airline travel or inconveniencing anybody– is functionally impossible. Such a system will always be broken from the start. And it won’t accomplish any of its goals.
Liberalism created a taboo against identifying criminals, blaming the tools they used, rather than the men themselves. This led to the farce of ‘Gun Control’ which insisted that guns are to blame for violent crime in urban areas, not the residents themselves. The UK is living out the Gun Control fantasy, and now it’s busy fighting “Knife Crime” and asking residents to turn in their knives. Security cameras are everywhere. There’s a national DNA database. Everything short of Minority Report’s Pre-Crime psychics is in play, and yet violent crime in the UK is worse than it is in the US.
The TSA’s policies aid and abet the same fantasy, that it’s not Muslim terrorists we should be worried about, but bottles of liquid, shoes and personal privacy. But bottles of liquid and shoes don’t blow up planes, Muslims do.
The first stage of fighting terrorism is to identify the terrorists. We haven’t done that. The second stage is to formulate a plan for fighting them. Instead we’ve formulated a plan to try and stop them from doing the things they tried to do six months ago. The third stage is to implement the plan. Since we don’t have a plan, we just randomly terrorize people in the hopes that the terrorists will be so impressed by our security theater that they’ll give up and go away, and if they don’t, then at least none of the bureaucrats and politicians in the loop will be held responsible for the next 3,000 dead.
We can stop the terrorists and keep America safe. And we can do it without treating everyone who flies like a criminal or demand that fliers accept the unacceptable. But to do that we have to go through those three stages. We have to identify the problem, formulate a plan for dealing with it and implement that plan. To do that requires going back to the beginning and remember why we’re at war.
We weren’t attacked by boxcutters in 9/11. We were attacked by Muslims who were acting in the name of Islam. They were not lone gunmen. And their creed goes beyond a few men living in caves in Afghanistan. They did what they did, because their religion and their bible commanded them to do it. This is the enemy. Every mosque on our soil is another base for terror. Every Muslim at the gate is another potential terrorist. You may not like hearing that, but those are the facts.
In the 1930’s most Europeans did not like hearing that they would soon have to fight another World War. All educated and moral people back then knew that wars were bad. The “real enemy” was the government and the capitalists who wanted to make the working class fight another war. So they denied it for as long as they could. Until the enemy was at their gates and the bombs were falling on their cities. Their politics blinded them to the threat. Just as they blind us today. And the blind are vulnerable. When violence happens, the blind have to suspect everyone and grope everyone. Because they can’t see who their enemies are.
Right now our security setup is blind, deaf and dumb. It’s three little monkeys in a row. One who can’t see any evil. One who can’t hear any evil. And one can’t speak out and identify any evil. Only when it can see, hear and speak– will we have any shot at fighting the terrorists, instead of terrorizing our own.