Monday, January 11, 2010

Taunting Terrorists

Castles with moats, bulletproof limos with bodyguards, and booby traps have mixed records. In a combination of smugness and paranoia, we as a nation seem to be trying all the gimmicks in building Fortress America. I for one am not counting on resounding safety success.
Podcast Plug: Your three favorite (?) Left Ahead! podcasters will flay this topic for tomorrow afternoon's show. Catch us live at 2:30 p.m. Eastern Tuesday 1/12. If you have something to add, call 718-664-6966 during the show. When the robot voice welcomes you, press 1 on your phone keypad if you want to speak.
I was surprised and a bit amused this past week to see the U.S. version of airport security in contrast to Canada and England's. As a nation, we seem to need desperately to want to believe we are in control and can prevent crotch bombers and more in their various incarnations.

The key question then becomes what should we reasonably expect from our broadly declared, theoretically extreme precautions? The corollaries include such as:
  • Does making a powerful security statement enhance our safety or serve as a double-dog dare for terrorists?
  • What are the consequences to our policy and people if there are one, two or more failures of security?
  • How much American liberty are we willing as individuals, leaders and a nation to trade for a real or imagined sense of security?
  • Is what we are trying to do better or worse than other countries' approaches?
  • Are there ways to prevent terrorism more generally than one, 10 or 1 million fingers in dikes?
Each of us certainly relates to the emotional need to defend America following 9/11. Yet, as surely as we can look at the failures of the death penalty as a murder prevention, leading the world in incarceration as crime deterrents, and even speed limits in stopping traffic accidents, we need immediately to see whether President Barack Obama's bluster about airport security is more than a short-term feel-good program.

Instead consider the economic and political take from a Financial Times columnist, Tyler Brûlé. This weekend, he dashed icy water on the fantasy. Moreover, he was candid in the philosophy assessment. As he put it:
Fortress America is exactly what the US should not be constructing at the moment. As the economy tries to correct itself, Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano should be doing everything possible to make travel into (and inside) the US as painless as possible – not putting people off. Likewise, US chief executives need to get in front of the camera and explain why a complete overhaul of the system is essential to stimulate commerce.
At a moment when we truly need to feel like we can protect ourselves and control the world, we may not want to consider such larger views. It is much more comfortable to go with the herd, but much less sensible.

For his part Brûlé would see an enhanced airport procedure that starts with upgrading the training and status of our screening personnel, turning out less robotic and savvier versions. From my experience, I think we should aim for Israel's style of high-end security that includes highly skilled security folk mingling with travelers at airports to ID the bad guys before they can act. Israel has been successfully thwarting terrorists a lot longer than we and we know what they do that works — but we don't do it or even try.

Instead, we use bluster and chest thumping. That is bound to come to bad ends.

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