Since 2001, when an Englishman named Richard Reid tried to sabotage a flight from Paris to Miami by detonating explosives hidden in his shoes, American travelers have become accustomed to removing their shoes and sending them through scanners at airport checkpoints.
Last week, a Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to sabotage a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit by detonating explosives hidden in his underwear. One shudders to think what the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) will make us send through the scanners now.
While a mandatory underwear check seems unlikely given the delays it would entail, it is at least as logical as many of the measures the TSA required in the wake of Abdulmutallab's abortive bombing. "These measures are designed to be unpredictable," said Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. It often seems that the government strives to maximize unpredictability by taking actions that make no sense.
We can thank Reid not only for the shoe ritual but for the statutory ban on lighters, which was finally lifted last year after the TSA itself complained that confiscating some 22,000 lighters a day distracted its screeners from more significant threats.
The disrupted liquid explosive plot of 2006 gave us the even more distracting, confusing and haphazardly enforced policy regarding "liquids and gels," while the post-Sept. 11 obsession with sharp edges led to the confiscation of untold pocket tools, nail clippers and cuticle scissors to prevent a kind of attack that is vanishingly unlikely now that cockpit doors are reinforced and the old wisdom of cooperating with hijackers in the hope of release has gone the way of the World Trade Center.
The reaction to Abdulmutallab's fizzled bomb shows that the government continues to fetishistically focus on the details of the latest incident and impose conspicuous precautions without regard to whether the security payoff is worth the cost. Because Abdulmutallab used a blanket to conceal what he was doing, the TSA told airlines to ban the use of blankets during the last hour of flights to the United States. Also prohibited during the last hour: getting up from one's seat, "passenger access to carry-on baggage" and "personal belongings on the lap."
Why the last hour? Because that's when Abdulmutallab tried to set off his bomb. Therefore that is what all terrorists will do.
The TSA also instructed airlines to "disable aircraft-integrated passenger communications systems and services (phone, internet access services, live television programming, global positioning systems) prior to boarding and during all phases of flight." And it forbade "any announcement to passengers concerning flight path or position over cities or landmarks."
Those rules, combined with the focus on the last hour of flight, suggest the TSA believes Abdulmutallab wanted his bomb to go off as the plane was approaching Detroit, and it therefore is trying to prevent other bombers from knowing where they are. But these precautions are easily evaded by anyone who does a little preflight research and wears a watch (next on the list of banned items?). In any case, other terrorists may decide to strike at a higher altitude, where the damage caused by an explosion would be compounded by decompression.
Because Abdulmutallab "went to the bathroom for approximately 20 minutes" before trying to set off his bomb (according to the criminal complaint against him), anyone who lingers in the restroom will be treated like a suspected terrorist, as a man suffering from food poisoning discovered on the same flight two days later. He was arrested for being "verbally disruptive" after an air marshal demanded that he get off the toilet. You might have a similar reaction.
What all these measures have in common, along with their questionable enforceability and effectiveness, is a complete disregard for passengers' comfort and convenience, which the government is willing to sacrifice on the slightest pretext. This attitude seems especially unfair because the passengers who subdued the underwear bomber were the one part of "the system" that really did work that day.