Ask the pilot

Who, exactly, is responsible for terrorizing the American public over the past month? Was it the failed London cabal, or the U.S. government, with an eye toward elections?

Published September 15, 2006 11:30AM (EDT)

Truth be told, I had every intention of ceasing and desisting from further talk on terrorism and security. After a month of criticizing the Transportation Security Administration, the airlines and the traveling public for a mostly mindless response to the liquid-bomb scare in London, what's left to say?

Plenty, actually. Plenty, that is, that probably should have been said all along, for the story that won't go away is the story that never made headlines to start with -- one that ought to outrage, and to some degree frighten, every American. How would you feel, and how would all of the recent madness affecting air travel -- the long lines at airports, the banning of liquids and gels, and the thickening mood of fear -- look if you were told that allegations surrounding the London liquid-bomb conspiracy were in fact substantially exaggerated?

Consider yourself told.

In an Aug. 28th article in the New York Times, senior British officials admitted that public statements made following the arrest of suspects plotting to destroy airliners using liquid explosives were overcooked, inaccurate and "unfortunate." Revelations in the nearly 3,000-word story are startlingly out of sync with the doomsday rhetoric we promptly heard, and continue to hear, from the media and government. We learn the conspirators had been known to law enforcement officials for at least a year, and were under round-the-clock surveillance for quite some time. The plot's leaders were still in the process of recruiting and radicalizing would-be bombers. They lacked passports and airline tickets and, most critical of all, they had been thus far unsuccessful in producing liquid explosives.

"Questions about the immediacy and difficulty of the suspected bombing plot cast doubt on the accuracy of some of the public statements made at the time," the article concludes. That's a convoluted way of saying the plotters were likely months from pulling off the massive, synchronized attack we've been told was only days away. "The reactions of Britain and the United States," the story continues, "... were driven less by information about a specific, imminent attack than fear that other, unknown terrorists might strike." As for the scope of the attack, British investigators described the widely parroted report that up to 10 U.S. airliners had been targeted as "speculative" and "exaggerated."

Why then did U.S. and British government spokespeople, up to and including our respective heads of state, trumpet an evidently incipient scheme as having brought us to the very brink of catastrophe? Homeland Security czar Michael Chertoff spoke of the conspirators having been "really quite close to the execution stage."

"There may have been too much hyperventilating going on," offered Michael Sheehan, former deputy commissioner of counterterrorism for the New York Police Department, speaking in the Times.

The Times reporters are not the only ones to expose fallacy in the London scare. Among first to express serious skepticism about the bombers' readiness was Thomas C. Greene, whose essay in the Register, published a week after the arrests in London, explored the extreme difficulty faced in mixing and deploying the types of binary explosives purportedly to be used. Greene is the Register's associate editor and has written extensively on security issues. In researching his story, he conferred with professor Jimmie C. Oxley, an explosives specialist at the University of Rhode Island who has actually synthesized the same type of deadly cocktail coveted by the London plotters, and has studied it closely.

Greene concedes that the threat of liquid explosives does exist, but that it cannot be readily brewed from the kinds of liquids we have devoted most of our attention and resources to keeping away from airplanes. Certain benign liquids, when combined under highly specific conditions, are indeed dangerous. However, creating those conditions poses enormous challenges for a saboteur.

"The notion that deadly explosives can be cooked up in an airplane lavatory is pure fiction," Greene tells Salon. "A handy gimmick for action movies and shows like '24.' The reality proves disappointing: It's rather awkward to do chemistry in an airplane toilet. Nevertheless, our official protectors and deciders respond to such notions instinctively because they're familiar to us: We've all seen scenarios on television and in the cinema. This, incredibly, is why you can no longer carry a bottle of water onto a plane."

"I would not hesitate to allow that liquid explosives can pose a danger," Greene adds, recalling Ramzi Yousef's 1994 detonation of a small amount of nitroglycerin on Philippine Airlines Flight 434. One passenger was killed and a hole blown in the plane. "But the idea that confiscating someone's toothpaste is going to keep us safe is too ridiculous to entertain."

Greene's summary in the Register highlights the inanity of our banning of liquids and gels, shows us where other, more urgent dangers may lurk, and underscores the futility of relying on airport security to begin with as a useful antiterror instrument. One of his primary assertions is similar to my own: Thwarting terror attacks is not, and never has been, the responsibility of airport screeners. It's the job of law enforcement and intelligence professionals. In the meantime, if you're going to have a large-scale security apparatus at airports, for heaven's sake let it be trained and equipped with some common sense in mind.

"TSA has spent the past five years enacting an elaborate rain dance for public consumption," says Greene, "and making a mockery of effective transportation security."

Be that as it may, why, in light of such startling revelations, have we seen a void of accountability? Why isn't Chertoff being held accountable for scaring and harassing millions of travelers? Why has the Transportation Security Administration, under his control, been granted carte blanche to proceed with an indefinite set of carry-on luggage prohibitions that experts concede are ineffective? I previously chided both the airlines and a somnambulant traveling public for failing to express outrage over the senseless new luggage rules. That was before considering that the gantlet of prohibitions might have been cooked up in response to something that never really existed in the first place. Perhaps it's not wholly fair to criticize fliers when, after all, they believed the threat to be genuine and imminent. Assuming it was not, I'll tender the same basic question put forth in this space a week ago: Where's the outrage?

The airlines, as we looked at last Friday, have the most at stake and, it appears, the least to say. Many airline employees I've spoken to are quietly delighted with the tighter baggage restrictions, as a decrease in carry-ons speeds up the boarding process and makes for easier work. Cabin crew will smile and tell you how helpful it is that the overhead bins are less crammed. The trouble is, those missing carry-ons are now stowed below. For passengers that means longer lines at the counter and longer waits at the carousel. In the U.K., where the rules are even more strict (reportedly they'll soon be eased), there has been a growing outcry from the likes of classical musicians, whose fragile and expensive instruments are no longer permitted in the main cabin. Concerts are in danger of postponement, and performers scheduled to play abroad have been taking the train all the way to Paris and flying onward from there.

In the long run, airlines have considerably more to lose than to gain. Safety issues aside, already I have lost count of the number of e-mailers who've told me they have sworn off flying unless it's absolutely necessary, now that the experience of a cross-country flight is akin to five hours in a medium-security penitentiary.

And, it's important to note, additional checked luggage means additional challenges when it comes to scanning those bags for legitimately dangerous items. Per procedures wisely adopted after Sept. 11, checked luggage is now screened for (conventional) explosives. Ironically, pushing a greater volume of suitcases through an already overstressed system makes it harder to detect the items that are more likely to be used in an attack.

Ultimately this isn't an airline controversy -- it's a national security controversy. And that's what makes it all the more frustrating that aside from Greene's essay and the Times article, almost nobody seems to care. Considering the important questions and contradictions screaming out for address, why has the fourth estate chosen to stay silent on what deserves to be a gigantic story? (The Times undermined its own good work when, several days later, it ran an abominably idiotic editorial calling for -- are you ready? -- the abolishment of carry-on luggage entirely.)

There's plenty of blame to be divvied up among obvious suspects: a shortsighted airline industry, the TSA and its welter of pedantic foolery, and a strangely recalcitrant press. But these are symptoms and not the disease. The disease has a name, and that name is fear. I'm generally not a conspiratorial sort but I urge you to reevaluate just who, exactly, is responsible for terrorizing the American public over the past month? Was it the failed London cabal, or your own government, with an eye toward elections and beholden to pollsters and those who stand to profit from billions of dollars poured into the gullet of the Homeland Security beast?

America has been scare-mongered into submission, and it's tough to tell who is more pleased, the foreign evildoers in their caves and distant laboratories or America's own leaders with their upcoming elections and color-coded instruments of control. Have we become a nation run by a faction of war profiteers, exploiting the fears of its own citizens?

I don't know about you, but I'm starting to feel had.

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Re: Passenger vigilantism

The Raed Jarrar case is especially troubling because it makes so little sense. Not only did security at JFK assume that Jarrar was potentially dangerous because of his shirt, they also assumed that making him remove the shirt would do away with the danger. When he finally agreed to put on a different one, they let him board the aircraft. The shirt was not considered a sign of some hidden threat; it was considered dangerous in and of itself. The only possible logic here is that security staff wanted to reassure anxious passengers. In that case, those passengers were effectively given veto power over what clothing a co-traveler might wear, regardless of whether that person was dangerous. There needs to be a simple rule that once a passenger has cleared security, and is not being disorderly by reasonable standards, then that person gets to fly. If other customers have a problem with his shirt, or language, or skin color, then they can wait for the next flight or take a bus.

-- Satadru Sen, New York, N.Y.

Author's note: A version of the above letter originally appeared online with other reader responses to my Sept. 8 column. I'm including it here because it makes a salient point that I should have made myself. Meanwhile, the consensus on many blogs and message boards seems to be that although Raed Jarrar was in no way dangerous, it was nonetheless important that he remove his T-shirt for the benefit of passengers disturbed by the Arabic script. I couldn't disagree more, and if that many Americans require such infantile coddling to feel safe, we're in worse shape than I thought.

Re: Passenger vigilantism II

To add some nuance to the incident in which several passengers were removed from a Northwest flight preparing to depart from Amsterdam to Mumbai, a majority of the passengers, not just the 12 men taken away in handcuffs, were South Asian. The men were variously "Urdu speaking," "bearded," or "dressed in salwar-kameezes" -- all signifiers of Indian/Pakistani Muslims. This makes it the first incident of aggressive profiling by and of South Asian passengers. This doesn't surprise me in the least, given the rampant anti-Muslim prejudice among middle-class Indians, especially expatriates. The BBC carried a report on the reactions of the 12 detainees and their families. It's clear they were 1) Muslim and 2) not exactly middle class. They were returning from a trade fair loaded up with electronic goodies, and they were loud. Class, as much as race or religion, is a critical factor here. Those who were taken off the plane belong to a new class of small-business people who work the "export-import" trade between South Asia and outside markets. They typically have minimal English-language skills, they don't dress all that well, and their manners are not what you and I might consider sophisticated. They don't know, or always follow, the niceties of air travel. They behave like they're on a country bus, which is the form of transportation they would have taken a few years ago. They're annoying as co-passengers, but they're not terrorists. Air marshals and crew need to better recognize these variables.

-- Name withheld

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By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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