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Let’s Play Catch-Up

The Obama administration has done . . . something:

A White House official told CBS News that airlines will now have to check the list within two hours of notification of an update with special circumstances, such as happened on Monday. Previously, airlines only were required to check within 24 hours.

This is evidence of small, reactive, and inadequate thinking.  For each exploited hole in the Homeland Security system, we add a new defensive complication that forces the next would-be terrorist to exploit a different hole. Faisal Shahzad managed to purchase a plane ticket and get on board an international flight hours after allegedly attempting to set off a bomb in Times Square. In order to prevent that from ever happening again, we’ve just urged future bombers to buy getaway tickets to flights that leave closer to the times of planned detonations and to buy those tickets in advance of the same.

On Christmas Day 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight with explosives-rigged underwear. Three months later, Homeland Security began installing full-body scanners in some American airports. Playing catch-up can be as undignified as it is ineffective.

The Bush administration was guilty of the same approach. After Richard Reid attempted to ignite his shoe explosive on an American Airlines flight in late 2001, Homeland Security responded by adding a shoe-removal step to pre-boarding protocol. Is there any doubt that if the fuse was lodged in his sock we’d now all have to remove every layer of footwear to get on our flights?

In 2006, a group of British men were caught planning to bring down at least seven trans-Atlantic flights using liquid explosives. Thus, the pre-boarding liquid-dumping ritual was born.

This dam has more gum-filled cracks than it can bear. We’re giving terrorists a fantastic blueprint for crippling our day-to-day pursuits. They don’t need to succeed in their attempts to maim and horrify. Each of their failures sets our bureaucracy in motion and leaves us with another burdensome faux-defense. The day after Faisal Shahzad failed allegedly to blow up his SUV, a cable news analyst wondered aloud if it was feasible to allow cars through midtown Manhattan anymore. It can’t be long before some unimaginative lawmaker has the same thought. And after the next Faisal Shahzad?  And the next? Why, automobile bans in ever-larger concentric circles, naturally. And then, what to do about bicycle bombs, and so on?

After it was discovered that the Nigerian underwear bomber was long known to intelligence agencies, President Obama spoke about the “systemic failure” of the way we protect our homeland against those who wish to do us harm. Yet, he’s still tinkering in the margins of that failure instead of summoning the will and imagination to qualitatively reform the way we do things. Any real systemic change means, for starters, rigorous profiling. Considering that this administration is loath to profile terrorists even after their attempted attacks, we’re a long way off.


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