In light of the Christmas Day “hot pants” would-be plane bomber, I would like to make a couple of comments about security – both for air travel and in general.

First off, I like security. I used to be annoyed by bag checks and the like – until I realized that those men and women standing outside the buildings were being paid far too little to take a bullet or a bomb blast on my behalf. Their job is to keep me safe. Here’s the kicker: So long as what they’re doing actually keeps me safer – I appreciate it.

I was recently in India. While I was there, the whole damn country was on high alert because several Jihadis had come across the border from Packistan, vowing a repeat of the Mumbai massacres. For those who weren’t paying attention, in 2008 there was a well organized set of attacks in the city of Mumbai. The terrorists struck ten locations simultaneously, killing 173 people and wounding 308. They both set off bombs and (more disturbingly to me) ran from place to place, gunning down groups of people in hotel lobbies and the like.

Every hotel and public building that I entered on this last visit had both a metal detector and a bag check. After the metal detector, I was patted down – including a crotch and ass grab – every single time. When I flew from Kolkata to Delhi, every single passenger passed through a metal detector and got a pat down – including a crotch and ass grab.

These procedures didn’t slow things down too much. A pat down takes less than a minute. You can do it in parallel with the bag check. You probably need a separate line for men and for women. Some people will choose to not travel by air rather than endure it. That’s fine with me.

You know what? I felt safer on that plane and in those hotels than I do when I fly in the US. For all the hassle with TSA guards, the yelling, the pointlessly changing rules and the constant confusion about who gets to see my footsies – our airport security theater does less than what India was able to accomplish with their existing personnel, on their existing budget, for their airplanes, hotels, and malls. This is because they have the willpower that we lack – to impose a bit of inconvenience on everyone in order to make us a bit safer.

A lot of noise is being made about millimeter wave imaging in the airports. That’s a red herring. The problem is not one of technology. It’s not for lack of expensive machines at the airports that we’re at risk. We are at risk for lack of willpower.

You want a safe flight? Here’s what I say: Pat downs. Men’s lines, women’s lines. Look in every suitcase. No carry on items beyond a newspaper or a book. Pat everyone down.

Security would go faster under the model.

Don’t like it? Take a train. Drive. Walk. Take a bus.

Security – real security – involves trading in some liberty for your safety. Real security is invasive. Real security gets in your face and emphasizes that the safety of all the passengers is more important than the convenience or assumed right to privacy of any one individual. Real security takes more time than security theatre, but not much more. You have to get your crotch grabbed to be sure you don’t have a pipe bomb strapped to your upper thigh. You have to stay seated during critical parts of the flight. People knock on the bathroom door when you’re in there more than 10 minutes.

The tactics used by America’s 9/11 bombers (seize control of commercial airliners and slam them into population centers) will never work again because of two changes that happened immediately:

1) We put locks on the cabin doors.
2) Passengers know that the rules are changed. I grew up under the “sit quietly and it will be over soon” school. We will never again sit quietly and allow ourselves to be flown into buildings.

All the rest of this crap is theater. Taking off my shoes, taking my laptop out of its case, 3oz containers of liquid … that’s all bogus. With those changes, the stakes change from 9/11 to a single plane being blown up. Still bad – but not nearly so bad as 3,000+ people dying. If you’re trying to prevent 9/11, we’re already done. Now we’re trying to keep pipe bombers off of planes.

Obviously, the hot pants bomber represents a failure of the air travel security system. It failed insofar as it could never work reliably over the long term in the first place. Without the will to get in people’s faces, to check their upper thigh for pipe bombs – we will continue to be unsafe.

No security system is perfect. Locks do not buy you security – they buy you *time*. All systems – and all components of systems – fail eventually. We fly millions of passengers all over the world every single day. In that regard, actually, we’re doing pretty well. Can we do better? Absolutely – but it will be invasive and and it will involve pat downs.

Countries with a little bit of backbone are already doing this. Why aren’t we?

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