We are reading very little news from the United States while in South Africa, particularly since (thanks to my least favorite senator since Jesse Helms, Joe Lieberman) the health care bill is such a cock-up. But you couldn't log into a commercial email account without reading an account of this incident, in which a Nigerian man attempted to explode a device on board a Northwest flight from Amsterdam, just minutes outside of Detroit. Passengers and crew members are being praised for their quick response in extinguishing the device and restraining the bomber.
TSA officials are promising action, action action, undoubtedly in the form of more high-tech approaches to stopping terrorists before they are able to act. And yet, what we have so far is incredibly expensive and cumbersome security procedures that can be easily circumvented by your average Joe Terrorist. I have always wondered, for example, how metal detectors would respond to explosives made of plastic. Answer? They don't. I have also wondered why, since it is well known that one must remove one's shoes at airport, any terrorist would put explosives in his or her shoe. Answer? They don't: they sew the bomb in their underwear.
There are two machines that might -- and I say might -- have revealed the old bomb in the underwear ploy. One is the machine, which we encountered in the airport in Paris and is in a few airports in the US, that puffs air at you and analyzes the atmosphere for chemical residue. The other one is the X-ray machine, which was very controversial in the US for the prudish reason that it showed the faint outline of genitalia.
The latter machine might be ineffective in the case of a terrorist wearing fake genitalia full of plastique ("That's a joke, son"), but it strikes me that both machines ought to be in regular use. So what if they cost half a million each?
But there are a few other things worth noting:
1. This particular bomber's name had been given to the US embassy in Nigeria by his own father. And yet, despite the fact that there is now a whole group of security professionals who specialize in clearing the names of people who have ended up on the so-called "no fly list" by mistake -- a process that can take months or years -- a guy who is actually on the list was able to board a plane bound for the United States without being thoroughly searched.
2. Northwest is promising a second security check at the gate for all US-bound flights. And yet, when your favorite Radical changed planes in Amsterdam, where our failed bomber boarded his plane to Detroit,six weeks ago, there was a second check at the gate prior to boarding the KLM flight to Cape Town. At this security gate, in addition to a second search of hand luggage, there was a body pat-down for everyone. Have US passengers somehow been exempted from this extra security to date? Is it something that has been sensibly requested by the South African government? Enquiring minds want to know.
3. It was at this second search that a very polite Dutch security guard asked me to unpack my toilet kit and remove the Swiss Army knife that I had put there prior to a car trip in the fall but had neglected to remove prior to this trip. It had been picked up on a simple x-ray of my hand luggage. This knife, however, had made it through x-ray security at Kennedy airport. Explain that, TSA.
I do not obsess about these things since I truly believe if there is a disaster with my name on it I can't do much about it. What I do object to is that airline passengers are put through endless delays and inconveniences on behalf of security precautions that don't seem to work very well. They confiscate your scissors, make you take your belt and shoes off, and then let someone on the plane wearing an exploding jockstrap. The one piece of good news, I suppose, is that American passengers no longer assume -- as they did prior to 9/11 -- that cooperation and meekness in the face of jihadi fanaticism will give them the best chance of survival.
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