Saturday, January 02, 2010

Attempted Airline Terrorism Story From Time

Interesting (and disconcerting) cover story from the latest issue of Time Magazine.

Titled "What We Can Learn from Flight 253", it examines the attempted detonation of a bomb on a Northwest Airlines flight into Detroit on Christmas Day. As the piece by Michael Duffy and Mark Thompson reveals, would be bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab came very close to his goal of blowing up the plane... which raises a host of questions about both how that occured and also what our response was.

Abdulmutallab used a similar explosive to what hopeful shoebomber Richard Reid used, only rather than in his shoe, it was sewed into his underwear. While it's true that there are some next-generation airport screening devices that would have detected the bomb-making gear, the standard metal detectors at most US airports wouldn't have spotted it. Additionally, Abdulmutallab was on a US terrorist watchlist (but, only the first level which doesn't mean much).

Profiling is another way that authorities can try to help prevent terrorism, and in their book "Superfreakonomics", (which I reviewed here) Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner tell an anecdote about how effective it can be. However, profiling as well as full-body scanning machines at airports raise legitimate privacy concerns and can't be counted on to prevent bad things from ever occurring.

On the same subject of preventative measures, there's the concern of simply taking after the fact actions that don't help going forward. From his book "The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable", Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote about this idea... with a potential example being everyone taking their shoes off going through airport security.

Another thing to keep in mind is the recent example of Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan. As Nancy Gibbs detailed in her Time cover story (which I wrote about here), terrorism doesn't necessarily have to be sponsored, paid for and planned by a terrorist organization, but rather can be the act of a person or persons wanting to commit a terrorist act.


All this considered, and as Duffy and Thompson argue in their cover story, you can't guarantee as a government that terrorism will always be prevented, so as prevention is practiced, you also have to look at response.

To this end, the Duffy and Thompson piece quoted Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano playing down the attempt by saying "once the incident occurred, the system worked" and spoke not of terrorism, but "man caused disasters." Also, "The Lesson: Passengers Are Not Helpless" by Amanda Ripley in this same issue of Time addresses both passenger response on Flight 253 and then how the FBI treated people after the attempted bombing was thwarted by the same passengers.

Just annoying stuff from Napalitano and the FBI...

The whole things is a big nut and tough to easily solve, but after reading the pieces both both Ripley and Duffy/Thompson (as well as past stuff), I think our government can do a better job of it's preventative measures, but perhaps even more importantly... of communicating with us as adults who understand we live in a dangerous world in which bad things can happen.