Airport Insecurity

DeLong Op-Ed in National Review Online

Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge recently told Chris Matthews that airplane security ultimately depends on the passengers, and that we should all look at ourselves “as potential air marshals.”

This statement is both encouraging and infuriating. Encouraging because it means that Ridge has a good sense of reality. Infuriating because it raises a question: Why did the administration ram though an airport-security bill that is profoundly at odds with this view of reality, a bill that deserves the adjective “frivolous.”

Its heart is a newly federalized corps of almost 30,000 workers that will perform the numbingly boring job of screening passengers, taking nail scissors away from little old ladies because it would be politically incorrect to pretend that we have any special interest in young men of Middle Eastern appearance. Thousands of sky marshals will be added, at huge additional dollars.

Deploying this force will take time, so passengers will continue interminable waits in security lines, to the detriment of themselves, the airlines, and the economy. Road accidents caused by the increase in driving will also kill some hundreds, a price that will go unnoticed by press or government leaders.

Putting into place effective devices for screening luggage will take years, so while we try to reduce to zero the risk that a business executive might carry a Swiss army knife onto a plane, the real risk of a bomb inserted into luggage by a martyr will remain only spottily addressed.

What makes the law truly surreal is that in fact it would be easy to stop hijackings quickly and at trivial cost. Check passengers and carry-on luggage for guns, as we did before September 11, harden the cockpit, arm and train the crew, tell them not to turn over control of the aircraft under any circumstances, and the threat is resolved. For extra protection, encourage passengers to carry knives so that potential hijackers will lack their present certainty that they are the only ones on the flight who are armed.

The only part of this option getting serious attention is the proposal to arm the aircrew, and this only because the pilots, who have the largest stake in rational and effective approaches, are pushing hard. In the political discourse, this proposal is seen as a minor add-on to the other measures, not as a centerpiece. Indeed, suggesting that our current course is frivolous is a quick route to dismissal as some sort of nut.

An effort to understand this odd program leads to depressed musings on how little the national psyche was changed by September 11. Everyone says “everything has changed,” then they set about demonstrating that nothing at all has changed.

To begin, the roll-out-the-pork barrel spirit of the past couple of years remains intact. We are rich, so it would be vulgar to worry about costs or effectiveness, especially when presented with a chance to add to the federal payroll. As to any need to think seriously about how to protect an infinite number of targets — bridges, utilities, telecommunications centers — against a variety of threats, or any suggestion that some rational allocation of resources might be wise – forget it.

A recent letter to the Washington Times noted that terrorists could easily decide to inject poison into a food item in the grocery store. Does this mandate a program to replace all stock boys with federal employees? Should they be required to have college degrees, so to ensure that this “vital task” is not performed by “minimum wage employees”? And fund it with a $2.50 per grocery bag special tax?

The airport debacle also exhibits the obsession with zero risk that makes the environmental movement so hysterical. Whenever our national searchlight turns to a problem, the only acceptable result is that all possibility that a risk might exist must be eliminated. If anyone can dream up a hypothesis under which this blissful state remains unattained, then still more must be done. While the hysteria lasts, other risks are totally ignored and alternative uses of the resources assumed to be inferior. The asbestos debacle remains the prime example. Billions have been spent to treat a non-risk, and it continues even after the reality is known to all.

So, when a metal detector was accidentally unplugged for 15 minutes at Seattle airport, the terminal was emptied and everyone re-screened, at a cost of three hours of chaos, even though no hijacker could have anticipated this or taken advantage of it. Further, passengers on flights that had departed during the down period were put through metal detectors upon arrival, despite the fact that, by definition, their risk of hijacking was now zero.

The collective national psyche remains unchanged at a deeper level. We retain a view of public safety that divides the world into the citizenry, which is supposed to remain passive, and the professional protectors. If the protectors are unavailable, the ethos requires the citizenry to do nothing except be good victims, like the doomed passengers on three of the four hijacked planes. That societal protection would be enhanced by an armed and aggressively active citizenry — the ideal embodied in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and currently pursued in Israel, where carrying arms is encouraged — is anathema, not only to the protectors but to most of the citizenry, which doesn't want the responsibility. Before September 11, gun-control advocates were not muted by factual demonstrations that states permitting arms have lower crime rates, and they are not affected by factual argument now.

This point about attitudes toward public safety segues into a broader one about the relation between the government and the people. Columnist George Will talks about “the political class” and economists write papers on “public choice,” both exploring the reality that those with their hands on government power become a special interest group with priorities and interests of their own. These particular terms are modern, but the concept is old. “Like fire, [government] is a dangerous servant and a fearful master,” said George Washington.

The 20th century was an era of expanding government power, to the point where governments in the United States now directly spend over 35 percent of the GNP and control a large portion of the rest through regulatory and tax measures. Maintaining this power is a prime directive for the political class, especially for its cardinals in Congress and their acolytes within the Washington beltway.

For this political class, September 11 was both an opportunity and a threat. An opportunity because wars always tend to expand government power. A threat because September 11 was a spectacular and obvious failure of government to fulfill its most necessary and proper duty of providing for the common defense, a failure caused in large part because the government is so distracted doing things it cannot do well, such as trying to micromanage the economy and foster political correctness on every possible axis, that it cannot pay adequate attention to its proper functions.

For the past 20 years, the expansion of government power has been under attack in places such as the National Review. The response of the political class has been to stonewall and propagandize, protected by the rational ignorance of the public — the reality that most people, busy with their own lives, pay little attention to the squabblings of policy wonks over issues which the public feels it cannot much affect anyway.

In the wake of September 11, ignorance is no longer rational, and people are paying attention. This makes it doubly important to the political class that it stand firm. To acknowledge a simple, non-governmental, inexpensive solution to the hijacking issue might open the floodgates of examination of the government role in a host of other areas, ranging from the post office to housing policy to social security. So, the great hope of the political class is that people will do what the president asked and fall back into their normal rational ignorance as quickly as possible.

Encouraging this requires that there must be no simple solution to airport security — it must be a complex problem requiring new bureaucracies, long-term planning, and expensive government involvement. Otherwise, who knows where it all might end? September 11 might actually change something.