Friday, July 24, 2009

Over reacting to potential terrorist threats

There was an interesting article in the Daily Kos last month on the cost of over-reacting to potential terrorist threats.
"He was trying to light his shoe. The flight attendant, aided by passengers, acted quickly. Richard Reid never got another chance to light his shoe bomb.

Thanks to the immediate action of the the those on board, there was no damage to the plane. No injuries or loss of life.

Since that day in 2001, every passenger entering a commercial airliner has been required to remove their shoes for inspection and X-ray. A precaution that is... massively, even breathtakingly idiotic...

Assume that each airline traveller spends an additional minute in line because of removing, scanning, and replacing their shoes. Just one minute. In the United States, there are about 830 million domestic airline passengers a year. That's about 1,600 man years of time spent each year on removing shoes that are no more threat than any other piece of clothing. If you put a $10/hr value on the time of the average air traveller, that's about $33 million / year worth of shoe time. Better than $300 million worth since Reid got tackled in business class.

Which has to make Reid and those like him very, very happy...

The bigger reason we did something is because the response of politicians is always to do something. Even if that something makes no sense -- even if that something is actually counterproductive... When politicians see something on the news, and when pundits are screaming for action, the inclination is to provide that action. If that means a million gallons of Head n' Shoulders in airport trash cans or a life sentence for stealing a pizza, so what? What counts is that action was taken.

Dave Kilchen in his new book The Accidental Guerrilla describes terrorism in the terms of an auto-immune disorder. Like lupus, where the systems of the body designed to protect against infection turn on healthy tissue, our response to problems can often result in far more damage than the problem itself. It's not the terrorists that do the real damage -- it's how you respond to the terrorists... The self-inflicted wounds have been deeper, more serious, and more lingering than anything that was done from the outside."

I also learned from the article that the United States v. Reynolds was the first time the US government successfully used the "national security" argument before the courts to prevent the release of privileged information.
"A military aircraft on a flight to test secret electronic equipment crashed and certain civilian observers aboard were killed. Their widows sued the United States under the Tort Claims Act and moved under Rule 34 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for production of the Air Force's accident investigation report and statements made by surviving crew members during the investigation. The Secretary of the Air Force filed a formal claim of privilege, stating that the matters were privileged against disclosure under Air Force regulations issued under R. S. 161 and that the aircraft and its personnel were "engaged in a highly secret mission." The Judge Advocate General filed an affidavit stating that the material could not be furnished "without seriously hampering national security"; but he offered to produce the surviving crew members for examination by plaintiffs and to permit them to testify as to all matters except those of a "classified nature." Held: In this case, there was a valid claim of privilege under Rule 34; and a judgment based under Rule 37 on refusal to produce the documents subjected the United States to liability to which Congress did not consent by the Tort Claims Act. Pp. 2-12."

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