Kneejerk reactions and a Keystone Cops approach to terrorism

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

No-one doubts the seriousness of the attempted terrorist attack on Northwest Airlines flight 253, bound from Amsterdam Airport Schiphol to Detroit Metropolitan Airport, on Christmas Day.

No-one doubts the need for enhanced, hopefully temporarily, security measures at airports – especially those in, or serving, the US.

But if recent history should have taught us one thing, it is that kneejerk reactions that affect the flying comfort of millions – and do nothing to catch terrorists – should be avoided.

A balance simply must be struck between prudency and practicality while making the flying experience as safe as possible.

Alas, once again, we are seeing the introduction of some frankly inane interim measures.

Times Online reported that in the final hour before landing in the US, passengers are being banned from standing up, using toilets and holding blankets.

Apart from causing a great deal of passenger discomfort, this ridiculous initiative implies that terrorists will only blow up a plane during the last hour of its flight.  We think they just may be bright enough to work out that setting off their devices, say, 90 minutes before landing may do the trick just as well.

Or how about this –also as reported by Times Online: “Inflight entertainment is being withdrawn where it includes maps of the plane’s location, for fear bombers will be able to pinpoint targets”.

Who on earth came up with that daft idea? Does anyone in their right mind truly believe that removing such a fun and educational element of the flying experience will possibly, possibly, possibly, reduce the terrorist threat? 

Does anyone truly think that a terrorist will wait until a certain town or city shows up on their inflight journey map before beginning an attack?

Guardian Online reported that Air Canada is barring passengers from having access to carry-on baggage or having any items on their laps during the last hour of the flight.

Again, this is puerile and ridiculous. Don’t defend it please as erring on the side of caution. It is nonsense. If someone wants to blow up a plane they won’t be bound by time or location constraints.

Passengers on some Virgin Atlantic Airways flights on Boxing Day were even warned to buy books as inflight films and other entertainment systems were being disabled for the entire journey. Fortunately that nonsense had been scrapped within a day. Admittedly some of the stuff coming out of Hollywood these days is dire but it’s still hard to see how it could incite an act of terrorism.

Rather than penalise and inconvenience millions of travellers, why not focus instead on better profiling of those likely to commit the atrocities in the first place? When will the US authorities get their act together?

Janet Napolitano, the US Homeland Security Secretary, said: “These [new] measures are designed to be unpredictable so passengers should not expect to see the same thing everywhere.”

One would hope instead that Ms Napolitano would focus on the more predictable science of screening the names on the US ‘watch list’.

Read this absolutely remarkable report from CNN.com and marvel at the ineptitude of those charged with our flying safety:  A US official said Saturday that Abdulmutallab’s father contacted the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria several weeks ago to report that his son had “become radicalized”.

The father, Umaru Abdulmutallab, told the embassy the family feared his son had gone to Yemen to participate in “some kind of jihad”, the family source said.

The source told CNN that the elder Abdulmutallab was deemed credible as a source, “but did not have enough specific information to justify canceling his son’s US visa or putting him on a ‘no-fly’ list”.

Now listen to this – if you can bear to without screaming in frustration: “If we pulled his visa or banned him from flying, that would have alerted him you are onto him,” the official told CNN. “Whereas in some cases if you have a terror lead, you watch to see what happens when he travels, which could be more valuable.”

In addition, the official said, it was “fairly early in the process of what kind of threat this guy poses”.

CNN reported that “a file” was opened on Abdulmutallab about five weeks ago. But the official added [with possibly the greatest sense of understatement in the history of mankind –Ed]: “One part of the system that absolutely failed” was that Abdulmutallab was able to board a plane to the United States, allegedly with PETN.”

It gets worse. Robert Gibbs, a spokesman for President Obama, said that the US government uses three ‘watch-lists’, which become shorter as risk increases.

They include one with some 550,000 names on it, a “selectee” list with 18,000 people within the higher-risk category, and a “no-fly” list with 4,000 names of people who are not allowed to board planes.

Abdulmutallab Junior was placed on the lowest-risk list by US authorities in November, after his father’s alert. Gibbs said the main watch-list was “a huge number”.

What, just over half a million people is a “huge number”? You have got to be kidding. Why not simply ensure each and every one of those individuals (if not on the higher-risk lists) is strictly searched at their departing airport/s; and the crew notified of their presence on the flight?

Whose civil liberties matter most? Where do the overwhelming majority of law-abiding passengers enter the equation?

On top of that improved profiling, no-one would complain about a fair and reasonable increase in security for perceived at-risk flights (those bound for the US or Israel, for example).

Far sooner this approach that targets the most likely terrorists than inconveniences the millions of innocents.

And while they’re at it, the US authorities might want to take a long, long look at their own inability to monitor obvious suspects.

The perpetrators of the 9/11 atrocities could and should have been identified as likely suspects given their bizarre flying school activities in the US.

Abdulmutallab, on watch with the US authorities due to an alert by his father, no less, should not have been let near Northwest Airlines flight 253.

So, a concluding word to the American authorities. Watch Abdulmutallab and his ilk please. Don’t stop me buying my duty free. Don’t stop me watching my inflight entertainment. Don’t stop me visiting the restroom when nature calls. And don’t treat me like a terrorist when your own Keystone Cops ineptitude is what is making the aviation world such a dangerous place.

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  • Hi Martin

    Spot on and sadly John Sloan misses the point – why do we all suffer for a minority? We start out with rights but along with that goes responsibilities and if we fail these, then your rights will be affected.

  • Martin,
    while you do great work in travel retail, suggest you stick to what you understand. Your comment that everyone on watch-lists should be more thoroughly searched, crew notified, etc is false propoganda, reflecting a rather narrow-minded commercial interest so your clients can continue to enrich themselves. Your basic understanding of the rule of law is questionable, and for those modern states which supposedly operate under the rule of law (let’s think Gitmo for a moment where US Supreme COurt repeatedly told Bush and now Obama to do the right thing) to cast doubt on travelers without due process is the true nonsense we all need to watch for. Political violence comes and goes and focus needs to be on addressing violence at its source, without imprisoning the rest of society on hearsay and other innuendo which is what most watch-lists are made up of. Benjamin Franklin was clear – those who give up freedom for fleeting security deserve neither.