Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Myth of Absolute Security

As everybody knows by now, over the Christmas holidays an attempt was made to blow up a plane headed to Detroit, Michigan. Despite various systems in place which should have prevented this incident from ever getting to this stage, the bomber managed to conceal the explosives in his underwear, set off the chemical reaction to act as an explosive charge. As it happened, it was only the quick thinking of another passenger and the response by the airline staff that saved the nearly 300 other passengers.

Since this time, there has been a lot of hand-wringing and finger-pointing, charges and counter charges. To top it off, last weekend, a man at Newark International Airport in New Jersey jumps a security checkpoint (to kiss his girlfriend) and causes a complete shutdown of the system, delaying flights and creating chaos for thousands of passengers. Last week, Obama addressed the nation, following an preliminary investigation about what went wrong and how we can improve security.

Despite all this turmoil and rhetoric and interminable news coverage , there are some points I think are worth mentioning. All security- whether it is a full body scanner or a lock on your front door- is mostly about giving one the “illusion” of security. Without this practical illusion of safety, we- as individuals and as a society- could not function. For example, we have to be able to turn off the lights at night, knowing-or at least, believing- that the alarms and locks in our home will work properly and effectively prevent a criminal from entering. If we didn’t have this illusion, we would worry ourselves silly- probably needlessly- every minute of the day. Life would hardly be worth the effort.

In point of fact, absolute security is probably an impossible target and no administration could honestly promise such a thing. And we are wrong and foolish to expect it. If your adversary is clever enough, he will find a way to outwit the security devices. This is a fact of life and something as adults we must come to grips with. That is the bad news but it doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands in resignation.

There is a bright side. Firstly, if everybody- not just the police or agencies but all of us- keeps a heightened degree of vigilance- not hysterical panic and over-reaction - we have a better than average chance of preventing a disaster. A thousand pairs of eyes means a thousand filters and checkpoints that a potential terrorist must avoid.

Secondly. adequate training can help to minimize the consequences of an attack. This requires civil training- things to watch out for. in effect, training people to observe, as well as first aid training and procedures in an emergency. This kind of training should be free of charge, and should work at all levels, home, school and the workplace. A kind of new nationwide Civil Defense Program? All of us must be able to look catastrophe in the face without blinking.

One of the best films I ever watched was a training video on hotel fires. Many of the facts were gruesome and, on the surface, quite discouraging. And yet, knowing now what I know about “the opening and closing of windows of opportunity” I now feel more confident that, in such a situation, I would do the best I could do. Maybe I would fail, but at the very least, I can base my decisions on accurate information and not blind panic.

Thirdly, the public has a duty to report suspicious behavior and in an emergency, act independently to save lives. Additionally, the public needs to feel certain that authorities are actually listening and following up on any leads, no matter how unlikely. This also requires security staff that are easy to contact, that can interview and evaluate the validity of reports and, when necessary, implement follow-up action. The idea that the public is only recipient of protection and not a participant is a fundamental flaw in the present system.

Can anybody imagine how difficult it was for the Nigerian father to go to the American authorities and report his own son? And yet, in the end, it seems to have been a failure of the authorities to take this important lead seriously.

And finally, if the authorities constantly upgrade their standard operating procedures and follow them with regards to security protocol, then our illusions of security may be based something more than wishful thinking.

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