Monday, March 11, 2013

Crazy, or Crazy Like a Fox?

Kevin Drum has a conniption because....well, I better tell this in order. First, the TSA announces they're going to relax the restrictions on stuff you can take onto an airplane -- including a bunch of fairly boring stuff such as a bunch of sports equipment, but also including small knives. Second, like clockwork, a politician decides to demagogue the issue: knives?!? On airplanes?!? In this case, the first-off-the-mark pol appears to be, no surprise, Chuck Schumer. Which is where Drum (and presumably other critics of "security theater") come in, hitting Schumer and defending the (relatively more) sensible TSA.

Fair enough! I had noticed the knife thing when it was announced last week, and I expected a grandstanding politician to join with the flight attendants in complaining about it.

Here's what I wonder, however. The hardest thing in the world is to relax safety restrictions. No matter how stupid they are, or how pointless, or even how counterproductive, there's always a risk that something will go wrong and the person who eased off will be blamed. It doesn't even have to be directly related; it's always easy to toss the blame on the person who was removing the restrictions (not concerned enough about safety!). And no, the Kevin Drums and James Fallowses of the world are a tiny minority when it comes to this. For anybody, when it comes to avoiding blame on security, the safe bet is always to ratchet up, and never never never to ratchet down.

So what I've wondering is whoever is making this happen over at TSA is actually really smart about that, and added "knives" to a collection of innocuous stuff to draw fire away from everything else. Not that I'm saying small knives should be banned, or even that TSA thinks they should be banned. Just that it's probably a viable bureaucratic strategy to toss in one item on the list that politicians can go after, thus allowing everything else to go into effect.

Well, probably not. And I'm not expert, but on the substance I'm sure Drum is right. But if the next step for the TSA is to announce that they're going to stop making people take off their shoes and also allow in very small amounts of explosives...well, whatever it takes, right?

35 comments:

  1. Lost a pool cue to the TSA last week. One day before the announcement.

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    1. You never actually know what they'll let through, either.

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    2. This "never knowing" business is the worst part of it. It differs from airport to airport, and even from agent to agent over time.

      Some say that's deliberately a part of the strategy so that those who want to thwart them cannot figure out the rules they follow.

      Others say that it's deliberately a part of their intent to keep travelers off-balance.

      But most generously interpret their behavior as the finest sort of bureaucratic ninnying.

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  2. Well, personally, I've never taken a small knife onto a plane, and never had any reason to, even before 9/11. I have, however, wanted to wear shoes as I traveled through an airport, and wanted to drink a bottle of water in an airport, and wanted to carry a can of shaving cream with me onto an airplane. These things are a much greater hassle than my inability to carry a penknife onto an airliner.

    At the same time, I can't help noticing that people have hijacked airplanes with handheld knives, yet they have never done so with a can of shaving cream. It strikes me as stupid and counterproductive to relax restrictions on the former while still holding the line against the latter.

    If the shoe business may indeed be the "next step," as you say, I'm fine with that... but why wasn't that the first step?

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    1. Knives were real threats...until they changed the airplanes, putting the pilot behind a fortified door.

      AFAIK, the post-2001 changes make a hijacking essentially impossible. What is possible is an explosion (well, murdering a bunch of passengers/flight crew is possible, but hard to see why that requires security to stop it since by itself it's no different than murders on the ground.

      So it's explosives, or anything else that could bring down a plane, that are worth guarding again. My understanding (which could be wrong) is that the problem with shoes/liquids isn't so much that it's looking for the wrong thing as it is that they're selecting out a couple of possibilities (based on previous attempts) that, post-attempt, are not particularly likely to be used next time.

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    2. Let's also not forget that the hijackers did not bring their box-cutters in their carry-on, either.

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    3. They actually allow you to carry empty bottles of water, so I bring my steel canteen on my belt and finish it off in line, then refill it (assuming I can find a fountain - I know where they are in the airports I usually fly at) on the other side. Not optimal, but better.

      The 'is this saline nose spray for your health?' question is a bit more odd. Am I carrying saline spray for its beauty effect, or that I don't like getting nosebleeds at 30K?

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  3. The only way to stop a bad guy with a penknife is a good guy with a penknife.

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    1. or two good guys with a can of shaving cream.

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  4. Yep. This is what politics really is -- a series of feints designed to distract you.

    Pay not attention to the that man behind the curtain.

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  5. There is an easy solution to all of this. Just have climate scientists come out in support of airplane security theater. Presto! It would all go away.

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  6. The knives thing was just the throwaway feint. The real planned scapegoat is this policy change: http://www.theonion.com/articles/tsa-to-allow-small-terrorists-on-planes,31574/

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  7. "TSA . . . added "knives" to a collection of innocuous stuff to draw fire away from everything else."

    Does this mean that TSA has a bureaucratic interest in getting two golf clubs onto a plane?

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    1. It's all about the wiffle bats.

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  8. What I don't understand is why we need more security on airplanes than we do on, say, Amtrak trains, or intercity buses. Or in stadiums and sports arenas. Or in malls. There is nothing particular about an airplane that makes mass unpredictable violence more horrific.

    The threat of using a hijacked plane as a weapon has, as you pointed out, been largely eliminated by securing access to the flight deck.

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    1. I disagree. Very, very few people have fears of dying on trains or buses, whereas fears of flying are so pervasive that many refuse to fly (or limit their flying as much as possible), and many, many others grit their teeth and really are frightened for much of the flight.

      (I am, in fact, one of those people. I have a fear of flying, and I take a Xanax to get me through it).

      So, it's not that flying is any more dangerous. Plenty of statistics demonstrate that it's safer than many other forms of travel. However, there ARE more fears associated with it.

      Planes have been terror targets much more so than trains or buses simply because people are more scared of them. And, in reality, there's a good basis for that: if a bomb goes off on your flight, you die. There really are no ifs, ands, or buts there. Moreover, everyone's mental image of said death is not pleasant. A fall without wind resistance or lift from 30K feet takes 43.2 seconds; it is very reasonable for a person to assume that IF it happens--the unlikely event somebody blows a big hole in the plane--, then they would very likely face 1-2 minutes of sheer, absolute terror. Neither trains nor buses will take so long to kill you. Bus: you'd blow it up, and death would be instantaneous. Train: derailment and crash would take MAYBE 10-20 seconds, and since its on the ground, we can all convince ourselves that we might survive such a thing (even though it's unlikely).

      If terrorists wanted to kill as many people as possible, they'd hit an indoor sports arena of some kind: the ratio of people to kill/ease of getting access to do so is pretty high. But they don't do so because we're not scared of going to sports games...well, non-Raiders sports games.

      Terrorists will also go after cafes and such in target countries, because doing so enough makes daily life terrorizing. Hard to terrorize Americans in that regard, though; we're pretty dang good at getting killed by our coworkers or in McDonalds already. So, planes are a very natural target.

      I'm NOT arguing that terrorists are smart in their targeting strategies or that our response is optimal. I am arguing that the strategy of defending planes seems rational, given a few basic assumptions about the goals of terrorists and judging based on the history.

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    2. Matt, your objection is more compelling than my sarcasm below...considering that individuals on terrorist watch lists were allowed to board at least two 9/11 flights once their luggage made it on board, its almost breathtaking that we would now move to allow weapons on planes because, well, we thought a whole bunch and everything we thought of told us this would be just fine.

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    3. Oh, don't get me wrong. I do think that the single best defense against airborne terrorism was 9/11. Everything done by the TSA (with the possible exception of the cockpit doors) pales in comparison to the effect that the event still has on people. A would-be terrorist now has to get past security AND 150+ air-marshals-in-their-own-minds. With this comes all sorts of badness, too: I've been on flights where someone got removed for looking Middle Eastern.

      I think my larger point is that the whole thing is a lot more holistic than we make it out to be. A penknife restriction WOULD have done us a lot of good, were it put into place on 9/10. Everyone talks about El-Al having their whole 'questions and reading your expressions" thing, but they don't seem to often mention the other part: you hijack a plane, and the Mossad will kill you, and your family, and maybe that guy who you met once just to be sure. And, it seems like if terrorists just realized how insanely vulnerable trains are (and how you don't have to die to not only take one out, but simply cripple an entire mode of transportation for a region for months), they might want to devote their attentions there. I, for one, am glad that they haven't figured that one out, so that we can all have a discussion about the merits of allowing tiny knives onto planes instead of worrying about where death will come from next. In a perverse way, us talking about penknives on planes is kinda proof that terrorism didn't win.

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    4. The point about the possible knife-wielding citizen militia on flights is another good concern. As you suggest, in these matters, there's nothing quite like a convert. (On a related note, my wife's university recently held their gun safety seminar, in which they pointed out that the kids at Columbine mostly cowered, and worse, some remained in their rooms at Va Tech. Shouldn't do that - if there's a gunman, create chaos! Attack! Run! By now, I think everyone knows).

      Inviting your fellow nervous, hypervigilant travellers to go ahead and pack the long knife on the 767 raises the possibility of macabre humor: imagine a man of Middle-Eastern descent coughing suspiciously on said plane, and instantly there's a face-off like the one at the end of Reservoir Dogs, only with semi-large knives instead of guns.

      Good times.

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    5. Actually, they did blow up trains--in Madrid, and they blew up buses and subways in London.

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    6. Yes, Matt, for Pete's sake, read some foreign news once in awhile. Trains were targeted in both Madrid and London, to horrific effect.

      And as to the reasonableness of hyping air security, please explain to me why access -- not to airplanes -- but to airPORTS was restricted for the first few months after 9/11. I remember having to pick someone up in a remote parking lot at LAX, because that's as close as you could drive a car to the airport. Because..... why, again? The 9/11 hijackers didn't attack Logan airport, they took over a plane some time after it flew AWAY from Logan airport. Had they been prevented from boarding the flights, would they have seized the Airport TGIF instead? Was that the plan? Why protect airports (as vs. planes) from attack and not any other public facility? Because people are afraid of flying? Come on. The government's job is to at least try to be actually effective.

      I also remember National Guardsmen stationed around airports back in '01-'02, wearing camo and carrying automatic weapons. Remind me why? The whole point of hijacking is that you're not discovered until you're aboard the plane and it's in the air. The National Guardsmen will be on their coffee break by then.

      Sorry, but it was all too obvious from the first moment that the government's response to 9/11 was going to be largely theatrical. (Even so, I think invading Iraq was maybe just a wee bit over the top.)

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    7. While I don't at all endorse "security theater", my opposition mainly stems from comfort with the following: if KSM and his nephew had never been born, the entire terror era (US version) may never have come to pass. I'm just skeptical that there's anyone at LAX worth finding.

      However, if there are a handful of other KSMs out there, and one of em might be at LAX, shouldn't security err on the side of over the top? Isn't security in a constant deadly arms race against those folks?

      I sort of made this point earlier, but it only sunk in during this conversation: its fucking remarkable that we on this side of the Terror Maginot Line unilaterally declared knives safe on planes because we can't envision another 9/11 using knives.

      I have no idea how knives could be used to wreak mass havoc in the skies. I never think about such things. I doubt very many folks do. But I'm sure there are a few.

      Did Kevin Drum, or someone similar, consult such folks to confirm that knives, in fact, cannot be used with deadly intent on an airline?

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    8. However, if there are a handful of other KSMs out there, and one of em might be at LAX, shouldn't security err on the side of over the top? Isn't security in a constant deadly arms race against those folks?

      I guess I'm missing a piece of the argument here. Of course every effort should be made to find terrorists, hijackers and masterminds wherever they might be. (Well, every effort short of killing 100,000 people in a 10-year military operation abroad. Comes a point at which the cure is worse than the disease.) But what do guys in camo carrying automatic weapons have to do with that? Or restricting parking near the airport? These are not cost-free or risk-free measures, particularly when guns are involved. What's the plan? That Mohammed Atta misses his plane and calls off his suicide hijacking because he has to walk further from his car? Or that instead of boarding the plane with the other passengers, he and his henchmen might try to chase it down the runway, like the Iranians at the end of Argo, at which point the camo guys will take off after them in hot pursuit and a hail of automatic weapons fire?

      ???

      Also, what changed in the months after 9/11 such that parking restrictions and armed troops were suddenly no longer needed? What imaginable new discovery could the FBI or the Transportation Department have made that convinced them that those measures, while objectively improving security before, no longer did? That's the thing about ratcheting -- eventually there IS a ratcheting back, just because the air of crisis can't be maintained forever. And what message does that send the bad guys? This message: that it was all for show, just like they figured, and that the person running our security is Bozo the Clown.

      Speaking of which, about your Phoenix pilot in the other subthread: I realize not every pilot graduated top of the class, but come on. This guy can't game it out even a half-step? Any hijacker with the power to coerce the pilot can get the plane flown somewhere by saying so through the closed door. The only reason anyone would demand entry to the cockpit is to get his hands on the controls. EVERYBODY in the world now knows how that's likely to end -- indeed how it well might end even if the hijacker-amateur-pilot meant to land the plane safely. Why would a real pilot, who at that moment (I assume this is their training) is in immediate steep descent toward the nearest airport, prefer that his/her loved one die in a crash that kills everyone on board, and maybe people on the ground as well?

      At any rate, the odd pilot's misgivings aren't the point: Even if Captain Phoenix can't take the pressure, no sane terrorist today is going to plan a 9/11 or anything like it that includes getting access to cockpits, because the terrorists know they can't count on being lucky enough to be on that particular doofus' s plane. They're more likely to be on a plane flown by someone with a measurable IQ, where the door will not be opened and their plan will come to nothing, knife or no. (I specify "sane" terrorist because there is no predicting what the insane might try, like that guy who stormed a BA cockpit a few months before 9/11 and almost crashed it over Africa. Maybe Captain Phoenix would open the door for him? Remind me not to let myself get routed through Phoenix anymore.)

      continued.....

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    9. (conclusion:)

      OK, granting all that, sure, we could probably come up with some theoretical scenario in which a pocket knife is useful to a terrorist. We can also come up with scenarios in which a sharp piece from a suitcase, or a leg brace, or a broken bottle from the airport duty-free is useful. There's no way to prevent all violence or credible threats thereof aboard aircraft, or even to make them especially difficult, particularly for terrorists who do a little planning. But that can't stop citizens from making reasonable judgments about measures that are taken in plain view. The reasonable things to do after 9/11 were retraining pilots and flight attendants, hardening cockpit doors, beefing up the Air Marshals service, coordinating intelligence better so the FBI gets the CIA's memos, and stepping up police efforts to find terrorists and track their financing ahead of time, especially across international borders where cooperation is needed among various authorities. Most of that I think was done to some degree. Some heightened security at airports -- bomb-sniffing dogs, running checked luggage through scanners -- was in order too. Most of the rest of it was just wasting resources that could have been spent on doing the aforesaid more and better. Even checking hand luggage for pocket knives has a cost; it means increasing the number of screeners, at least somewhat, so the whole system doesn't grind to a standstill. And resources are limited. Is that how they should be spent? If there's one thing I think we know for certain, it's that decisions like that are too important to leave to the kinds of people who thought that jungle camouflage (!) was the right look for guys patrolling a glass-and-steel airport.

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  9. Knives are okay on planes because we have taken appropriate steps to prevent a re-occurence of the last terrorist attack. Good plan! We know that terrorists are always trying to recapture yesterday's glory, as opposed to finding new ways to exploit current weaknesses.

    Knives on planes are not a weakness? A pilot in Phoenix called NPR today to note that, while he is trained never to open his doubleplusgood secured door, pilots often work with their spouses or other family members, so if he sees his flight attendant wife through his camera, a large knife to her neck, he can't guarantee he'd follow protocol. Who, honestly, could?

    Y'all are fine with unnecessarily placing another tool in the arsenal of scheming evil-doers, (because they can't repeat yesterday's plot!!), and you're also fine with breaking the seal on drones in order to take out illiterate, America-hating prehistoric Pakistani goat herders, whose scheming, obviously, leaves more than something to be desired.

    Set aside the fact that apparently no one noticed that in the latest round of hostilities in Gaza, one of the buildings taken out by the IDF was a drone-making factory. Let's give the evildoers access to knives on planes. They won't come up with anything, cause terrorists are nothing more than illiterate goat herders in the primitive tribal regions of Asia. We'll take care of them all with our drones!

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    1. Oh, yes, because there's nothing else they could bring on board!

      It's a stupid rule because it also bans screwdrivers and pliers. It's stupid. If someone wanted to sneak a blade on board, they can, The rule does not work. And it restricts unnecessarily.

      And then the rest of your comment is tripe. drone-making facility? You mean, like the guy across the street building RC cars?

      Are you really that afraid of the world?

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    2. You are a major in the IDF. Your prime minister wanted to be a war president right before the election, so he had you attack Gaza again. Now you've just blown up a bunch of houses and you need to justify it.

      That house was a drone factory!

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  10. The hardest thing in the world is to relax safety restrictions. No matter how stupid they are, or how pointless, or even how counterproductive, there's always a risk that something will go wrong and the person who eased off will be blamed.

    More correctly: the hardest thing in the world is to relax government controls on anything. Federal airline deregulation in the 70s required monstrous effort; it probably couldn't happen today. As leftists gain more control, the energy is toward more federal restrictions on behavior except for stuff like gay "marriage."

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    1. Dang, I had meant to comment on that line used by our host earlier today, but got distracted by "fear of flying" stuff.

      JB: did you notice the similarity in your argument to Scalia's "nobody undoes racial entitlements" line?

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    2. Oh, and to the substance of BYF's claim:

      It IS more difficult to undo a government program than create a new one. Vested stakeholders and all that.

      However, it has been done. The Bush Administration rolled back numerous regulations. The first two that jump out at me are snowmobiles in federal parks and arsenic in water (though, in the latter case, it didn't remove regulation so much as turn back a decrease in the levels permitted, so no agent or bureaucrat was threatened). In the states, witness the HUGE rollback in regulation of electricity generation/transmission that passed legislatures AND ballot initiatives in the late 1990s(and to GREAT consequences, like "screwing Granny out of her retirement" and rolling blackouts).

      As I said earlier, it's tough to do. Expanding the reach of government is easier than contracting it. But, the hardest thing in the world? It's not even the hardest thing in politics.

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    3. Heh.

      Of course anything that has to be done through Congress is a lot harder than something that can be done unilaterally (more or less) by an agency. And I was trying to save words -- what I meant was hardest thing to to *when everyone involved agrees it's the right thing to do* is to relax safety regulations. That's obviously not the case with lots of deregulation, or with the Voting Rights Act.

      (And of course if it *was* true, it's pretty hard to see the logic of saying that the courts should step in for cases in which everyone agrees that something would be best policy, but everyone is also afraid to do it because it would look bad).

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    4. You're really thinking about vetting again, aren't you?

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    5. what I meant was hardest thing to to *when everyone involved agrees it's the right thing to do* is to relax safety regulations.

      It IS more difficult to undo a government program than create a new one. Vested stakeholders and all that.

      Jarvis responds to Bernstein's point before Bernstein makes it; there is no "everyone" just like there is no "we." No matter the government policy, there are vested stakeholders, and those stakeholders will generally spend more energy and be better positioned to argue than will those who want government to relax its chokehold. The incentives are stronger.

      But it's easy to find people who want small knives kept off planes. Ask your neighbors.

      I'm thinking that this ruling is a win for the TSA because it will allow the TSA to expand because security theater will now include time-consuming knife inspections. Government bureaucracies seek larger workforces because more employees = more (preferably unionized) voting stakeholders. It's the pure-government version of TBTF.

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  11. I saw Drum's comments on relaxing the knife restrictions last week (or was it the week before?). He commented on the number of times he's been on the road and wished he had a pocket knife with him for one task or another.

    My initial reaction was in two years as a road warrior I could not remember ever wishing I had a pocket knife. My second reaction is that I can't remember more than two or three times in my 40+ years of life ever having that thought. It's like any tool. Once you are used to having one available you find any number of uses for it.

    While I agree that there's minimal reason to restrict their presence on planes (no more reason than there is to prohibit carrying a knife anywhere else in public) I can also assure those who want to have one you will get along just fine without it.

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    1. Ehh, I hate the "whaddya need a knife for?" argument. You could make it about neckties or toothpaste, too.
      Want to say knives are too dangerous to bring on a plane? Fine, I'll keep wasting money buying them when I arrive and leaving them in my hotel room when I leave. But tell me I don't need one 'cause YOU don't open wine bottles, slice sausage, or use a screwdriver when you travel? Please.

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