Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Shoes Thing and Why Sometimes Clear Responsibility Doesn't Work Right

Politico has a nice story today about shoes -- the ones that we've all had to remove at airports ever since the failed shoe bomber in December 2001. Now, I'm certainly not a security expert, but my understanding from what I read (okay, I can't find a good James Fallows post to link to, but that's what I mean) is that the whole thing is just foolish; there's really no good security-based reason for removing shoes.

So why are we stuck with it? That's easy. Once something like that gets adopted -- once something like that even gets proposed -- no one, and certainly no one who might ever run for re-election, wants to be in the position of having eliminated it and then wind up being the notorious clod who "caused" the deaths of innocents. You know this, but I'll spell it out...suppose that a shoe bomb of some sort is one of, oh, 100 ways to bring down an airplane, but is also one of a dozen ways that we currently prevent. Since everyone knows about the shoe thing, that just means that a bomber will switch to one of the other ways. Should that happen, it's no one's fault. But if the shoe thing is repealed and then a shoe bomb is used successfully, pity the poor politician who "allowed" the terror attack. Even though, in fact, had the thing been effect the odds are that the bomber would have just used another method.

(Again, all of that depends on my understanding of issues on which I have zero expertise).

Regular readers may recall that there is in fact a mechanism available to Janet Napolitano, Barack Obama, and others who don't want to put themselves at jeopardy for this. It's a situation in which (if I'm understanding it correctly) everyone agrees on what should be done, but no one wants to take the credit/blame for it. The solution? A commission. Get a bunch of nameless experts together along with (bipartisan) chairs who are long retired from having to care too much about the consequences of something going wrong, and have them propose whatever new rules you want to implement.

Oh, yes: such a commission should most definitely be stacked to achieve the result that everyone wants going in. If there is no such consensus view, then the commission doesn't work and is the wrong mechanism. Indeed, if there's a policy which is divisive, but that the side with the votes doesn't want the credit/blame for implementing, then it's not going to happen, or at least it's highly unlikely (see: closing Gitmo). But when there is a consensus, commissions can do the trick. 

Indeed, the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks would be a nice time to appoint a commission to streamline security measures that have been implemented over the last ten years. Perhaps it could recommend changing the name of the Department of Homeland Security, too, but that's probably way too much to ask.


  1. Oh, yes: such a commission should most definitely be stacked to achieve the result that everyone wants going in.

    That's really the crux of the matter, isn't it? A politician can certainly avoid taking responsibility for a particular policy by handing it off to a blue-ribbon commission; but the whole point is that the politician still wants to dictate the policy, and that's not possible unless the commission members are hand-picked lackeys.

    Which, I submit, might be a problem for Obama. Sure, the GOP has hundreds of congresspeople and elder statesmen who can be counted on to toe the party line. But the Dems? Whoever is picked to be on a commission will likely view it as an opportunity to burnish his/her bipartisan, centrist bona fides. Result: GOP members want GOP policy, Dem members want to compromise, so we end up with.... GOP policy.

    I guess this is an offshoot of the "Partisan Hack Gap". In any event, it makes it much more difficult to avoid leaving fingerprints on controversial policy measures when you don't have loyal soldiers that you can count on to take your side.

  2. No need for a commission. The US Senate hasn't done its job in nearly 2 years, so it's probably time we force them to do so. Commissions just allow further shirking of their responsibilities.

  3. Jonathan, not sure if you read Bruce Schneier ( http://www.schneier.com/ ) but he's my go to guy for security analysis. (He just happens to have a post up on post-9/11 security)

  4. Meh, weak argument.

    Inertia, laziness, lack of vision, lack of leadership, and timid citizens.

    Fear of failure? It's out there, but more a reality for civil servants than politicians.

  5. The shoe nonsense wasn't mandatory until 2006. Before that it was optional.

  6. The further irony is that the shoe bomber boarded a plane in Europe headed for the US. And yet, the European airports I've been through in recent years have not been requiring people to take off their shoes. Do they even require this at Paris / Charles de Gaulle, the one airport known to have let a shoe bomber through security?

  7. I really hoped this was more of the Arab-Spring shoe throwing; spawned when an Iraqi threw a shoe at President George W. Bush in protest.

    That's the other way to move politics to sensible solutions: protest.

  8. @Jeff - the Europeans (and actually every country I've been to including Canada) only do the shoe thing for flights heading to the US. For all other flights, they don't care. They only do it for US flights because the US insists on it. Take note next time you are in a foreign airport: usually "international" and "USA" are two separate lines.

  9. I have flown flights from Europe to the US where not only was there no mandatory shoe removal, the security looked sadly at Americans who asked about it like they were particularly dim terminally ill children talking about what they wanted to do when they got better.


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