How to Transcend Post-9/11 Homeland Insecurity

Is “Elevated” worse than “High,” or is it the other way around? Hell, I can’t remember. Need the iPhone app for that I guess.

I hadn’t intended to write anything on 9/11; but riding home from downtown D.C. the very night after Forbes issued a call for retrospectives, I crossed the Roosevelt Bridge onto Interstate 66, only to immediately confront a traffic backup with no exit possible for several miles. So I chicken-walked my motorcycle the entire way.

It reminded me of how Washington went pear-shaped after August’s mild east-coast earthquake, which in turn reminded me of how the city ground to a total standstill during a January snow dusting, trapping thousand in their cars including my girlfriend for nine hours, many even longer. Flooding from tropical storm Lee brought new pandemonium last week.

My 9/11 tale wasn’t profound; I’d given a  speech on privacy September 10, 2001 in San Francisco. I don’t normally save knick-knacks, but I kept the “Panel Member” plaque etched with that last innocent date. I boarded my flight for home Tuesday morning the 11th.

Once it became apparent that four sets of hijackers infiltrated three airports and inflicted unspeakable horror, I knew we’d not be flying for days. I ejected and headed east, courtesy of Avis. Powered by adrenaline, caffeine and talk radio, I spent the first night in Evanston, Wyoming, horrified at the tragic images I was seeing for the first time on the motel TV, especially the pitiful jumpers. I spent the second night at a Kansas City, Missouri Motel 6 (I was saving the Cato Institute money), and drove straight from there to D.C. and my family, arriving at 2:00 a.m. Thursday.

Agitation for a Department of Homeland Security took zero time, but President Bush wasn’t enthusiastic about creating a new Cabinet level entity. I agreed, thinking, we already have a Pentagon and intelligence agencies. But legislation instantly materialized.

I work in public policy, and civil liberties matter to me; I wondered with my Cato colleague Adam Theierer about 9/11′s havoc on citizen’s anonymity and privacy. Ten years later, I remain fascinated and worried by the exile of private enterprise from security policy. But given the disdain for free enterprise elsewhere–finance, insurance, health care, energy, telecommunications–emphasis of government over private security can’t be called a surprise today.

I tend to think of values that we hope to enlarge–privacy, safety, security, cybersecurity–as forms of wealth in themselves, and that free enterprise is vital for expanding them, “public goods” arguments notwithstanding.

Therefore maybe I worry more than others about Washington’s tendency to overrule the discipline of free enterprise in such realms as airport security, proposals for a “kill-switch” for the Internet in event of cyberattack, “critical infrastructure” regulation, restricted access to our own critical energy resources, “net neutrality” interference with developing a robust Internet, antitrust regulation’s distortions of mega-scale infrastructure development, and the failure to liberalize spectrum for communications. Interventions like liability waivers for politically approved homeland security devices that fail also worry me.

While supporting some enhanced federal post-9/11 role, Bob Poole of Reason critiqued the “knee-jerk response” of the federal takeover of passenger screening, noting  the access to sensitive areas still retained by caterers, refuelers, cleaning staffs and others. He noted that staffing security with civil servants severely diminishes hiring flexibility, and pointed to airlines’ inability to assume responsibility for safe airports.

Security expert Bruce Schneier seemed even more skeptical in Beyond Fear, arguing that “only two effective antiterrorism countermeasures were taken in the wake of 9/11: strengthening the cockpit doors and passengers learning they need to fight back. Everything else…was only minimally effective, at best, and not worth the trade-offs” particularly given civil liberty losses. Tellingly, strengthening doors and and fighting back protect security without invading anyone’s rights.

Given heavy FAA regulation of airlines, I still haven’t gotten a straight answer on whether an airline could have reinforced its cockpit doors of its own volition prior to September 11.

Other private approaches could include airline issuance of their own ID cards (as opposed to escalated federal surveillance), reclaiming background checks of system employees, deployment of biometric face-scanning technology, or even pilot biometrics such that planes flyable only with a live, identified pilot in the seat (making them useless as guided missiles).

Regulation can prevent such innovation, not just at the airports but at power and chemical plants and elsewhere.

Schneier refers to “brittleness” of security and other systems, wherein systems fail badly or cascade, and bog down. D.C. traffic and the Metro train system are brittle. An airport that funnels everybody through one security seems brittle. The earthquake reminded easterners that cell phones calls seem brittle compared to texting 10 years on.

Despite the Department of Homeland Security’s $55 billion budget, its tens of thousands of employees and its rafts of regulations, the official advice to recognize that “help may not come” remains sound. We all need to know how to stock gear for our families ahead of time without being maniacal about it, and should assume some responsibility to help others in need as if we were the paramedic. There’s lots to learn from out-of-print editions of the Boy Scout Handbook or Neil Strauss’ Emergency.

Avoiding the straightforward isn’t restricted to the government, of course. My request for simple $8-a-roll glow-in-the-dark safety tape to attach down the stair handrails from our 12th floor offices in event of a blackout met bureaucracy and faux complexity. I think every building in New York and D.C. should have it. Eight bucks a roll, people.

But, back to Route 66 out of Washington and its implications for city evacuation; when I arrived at the blockage, there wasn’t one. The police car and the fender bender were all the way over on the shoulder.

In an emergency, stress-caused collisions and other breakdowns are inevitable. As during the tropical storm, cars will be abandoned on major arteries, the steets impassible, relegating official written evacuation routes that few even know about to a lower sub-basement of uselessness.

I grimly suspect also that almost nobody knows that Pennsylvania Avenue divides D.C. between North and South and no vehicles will be allowed to cross it anywhere.  A recipe for utter pandemonium, but at least the politicians can get out.

In a major attack, terrorists must be expected by DHS to place burning cars on bridges out of the city, and to disable Metro (simple because everything delays Metro).

Yet I can’t find the part on the Homeland Security page about leaving D.C. on foot and crossing the Potomac. But that may be the only escape from Washington in case of the unthinkable.

As for me, I keep a  good pair of walking shoes to trek back to Virginia. A Razor scooter is still on my list, since I the one I did buy is being used at home by the kids. But I also have a float to get across the Potomac, because the bridges may not be available. Maybe it’s crazy, but I’m not joking. It’s a blue PFD from Wal-Mart, and they’re cheap like the glow-tape is.

Ten years post-9/11, there remains an air of uncertainty over what the feds can actually do to protect us.  But also troubling is implied disdain for private security’s role, and regulations that hamper robust private infrastructure development ends that DHS presumes to champion.

That imaginary line that should divide government protection and private security (gated communities, security guards, door locks, barbed wire, firewalls, anti-virus software, specialized insurance, watching Survivorman on cable and so forth)  isn’t always easily detectable.

But 10 years on, I hope we can learn to appreciate that when the private sector does gets better at protecting, there needs to be breathing room, flexibility enough for it to take over the job. But that can’t happen under today’s attitudes toward infrastructure and at vital areas such as the airport; we’re stuck with the Transportation Security Administration pat-down approach forever.