Fighting Words

Don’t Be an Ass About Airport Security

The enemy is inventive and imaginative. Our response is neither.

A TSA agent conducts a pat-down

I did not pay any attention to last week’s feeble-minded attempt at a civilian-sponsored go-slow at airport security checkpoints. When the best that the children of a revolution can do for the defense of their inalienable protection against unwarranted search and seizure is to issue the pathetic moan, “Don’t touch my junk,” a low point of humiliation has been reached. It will soon enough be forgotten, as have the low points that preceded it. And it is destined to be succeeded by even lower and more humbling ones.

Consider: The decision to make us all take off our shoes was the official response to the scrofulous “shoe bomber” Richard Reid. The ban on liquids and precisely specified quantities of gel was the best we could do by way of post-facto thwarting of a London-based scheme to mix liquids in-flight and cause a mid-air detonation. The decision to inquire more closely into our undergarments was the official response to the “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. The more recent decision (this was a specifically British touch of genius) to forbid the shipping by air of any print toner weighing more than 500 grams was made after some tampered-with toner cartridges were intercepted on international cargo flights leaving Yemen a few weeks ago. (Fear not, by the way, you can’t have these hard-to-find items in your carry-on bags or checked luggage, either.)

In the more recent instances, the explosive substance involved was a fairly simple one known as PETN. Now consider again: Late last August, the Saudi Arabian deputy minister of the interior, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, was injured in the city of Jeddah by a suicide bomber named Abdullah Hassan Al Aseery. The deceased assailant was the brother of Khalid Ibrahim Al Aseery, the suspected bomb-specialist of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and the man sought in connection with the underpants and toner attempts. In the Jeddah case, the lethal charge of PETN was concealed in the would-be assassin’s rectum.

Perhaps you can begin to see where, as they say, I am going with this. In order for us to take them even remotely seriously, our Homeland Security officials should by now have had no alternative but to announce a series of random body-cavity searches some months ago. At least that might have had a deterrent effect and broken the long tradition of waiting for the enemy to dictate all the terms, all the time. It is a certainty that this deadly back-passage tactic will be tried. It is equally a certainty that it will find us even more defenseless than before.

Let me recommend regular reading of the magazine Inspire, the flagship publication of AQAP. It is remarkable for its jauntiness and confidence and sense of initiative. The cover of the most recent issue shows the tail of a UPS jet with the headline “$4,200.” That was the estimated outlay, for AQAP, of the toner operation that disrupted international air cargo for several days. Inside is a telling comment on the only countermeasure to be taken so far: the ban on toners of a certain weight. “Who is the genius who came up with this suggestion?” jeer the editors. “Do you think we have nothing to send but printers?” (Incidentally, I recommend this analysis of the latest issue of Inspire, written by Shiraz Maher of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College, London.)

The authors of this propaganda show a natural talent for psychological warfare. It is, one might say, “part and parcel” of the campaign they slightly unoriginally call “a thousand cuts.” But the simplicity of that scheme is as self-evident as its cunning. By means of everyday devices and products, plus a swelling number of human volunteers willing to die and kill, they can strike at will and even afford to taunt us in advance. While we pay salaries to thousands and thousands of dogged employees to glare suspiciously at shampoos and shoes and toners, the homicidal adversary discards those means as soon as they are used and switches to another. How they must chortle when they see how sensitive we are to the “invasion of privacy” involved in a close-up grope or a full-on body scan. In preparing their own bodies for paradise, they know no such inhibition. If they guess that we will not even think about how to pre-empt the appalling anal strategy, they so far guess right.

In Robert Harris’ brilliant political thriller The Ghost, the Tony Blair character becomes exasperated with facile liberalism and says:

You know what I’d do if I were in power again? I’d say OK then, we’ll have two queues at the airports.On the left, we’ll have queues to flights on which we’ve done no background checks on the passengers: no profiling, no biometric data, nothing that infringes on anyone’s precious civil liberties, use no intelligence obtained under torture—nothing. On the right, we’ll have queues where we’ve done everything possible to make them safe for passengers.

His angry challenge to his critics is to see which line those flying with their own children would choose to join. It’s a useful thought experiment. At the rate of current progress, however, I rather fear that AQAP might accept that very challenge and make it a point to blow up a plane full of passengers who had stayed in the ostensibly secure line. Or to give up on aviation altogether and start again with trains, which would come to our protectors as a total shock. The new tactics and propaganda of the enemy show them to be both inventive and imaginative. The response of our security state shows it to possess no such qualities.

Like  Slate on Facebook. Follow Slate and the Slate Foreign Desk on Twitter.