On December 22, 2001, a 28-year-old minor thug and former gang member from South London climbed onto a Boeing 767 bound for Miami. On the sparsely booked flight, he settled into a window seat in an otherwise empty row. Ninety minutes into the flight, with the plane well out over the Atlantic, a flight attendant noticed smoke coming from his area. She informed him that as the flight was an American flight, no smoking was allowed. A few minutes later, he was hunched over in his seat when the attendant saw that he wasn't trying to light a cigarette. He was trying to light his shoe. The flight attendant, aided by passengers, acted quickly. Richard Reid never got another chance to light his shoe bomb.
Thanks to the immediate action of the the those on board, there was no damage to the plane. No injuries or loss of life.
Since that day in 2001, every passenger entering a commercial airliner has been required to remove their shoes for inspection and X-ray. A precaution that is... massively, even breathtakingly idiotic.
Why? Well, first off the volume of a shoe sole is not all that great. Reid managed to cram about 100 grams of high explosive into his shoe. Had he been successful in setting off the explosion, it's unlikely that the plane would have been so damaged as to crash, but almost certain that there would have been deaths in the passenger cabin. If the bomb had worked, it would have been a serious problem. So why is making people take off their shoes before entering a plane a crowning bit of stupidity? Because that 100 grams might have fit almost anywhere. Anything that will fit in a shoe sole will also fit in a back pocket, or under a shirt, or in a pair of extra comfy undershorts, or in a bra (as a comparison, the average breast implant weighs three times as much as much as Reid's shoe bomb -- and that's just on one side). There is absolutely nothing magic about shoes. In fact, as a place to store explosives like the ones that Reid carried -- which can be quite shock sensitive -- packing them into your shoes has to rate at the bottom of the list. But here we are years later, still showing off our holey socks to the world and making business for the folks at Tinactin.
Assume that each airline traveller spends an additional minute in line because of removing, scanning, and replacing their shoes. Just one minute. In the United States, there are about 830 million domestic airline passengers a year. That's about 1,600 man years of time spent each year on removing shoes that are no more threat than any other piece of clothing. If you put a $10/hr value on the time of the average air traveller, that's about $33 million / year worth of shoe time. Better than $300 million worth since Reid got tackled in business class.
Which has to make Reid and those like him very, very happy.
So why we go through the shoe ritual? First the fear factor around shoes was bolstered by other events. Only a few months after Reid's failed attempt, an airliner went down in Queens. Immediately, the rumor circulated that the plane had been the victim of another shoe bomber -- a theory that seemed to be confirmed by "cooperating" terror suspect, Mohammed Jabarah who was feeding information to the CIA from inside an al-Qaeda cell. Jabrah claimed that the plane had been destroyed by an unnamed "12th hijacker" using a shoe bomb, as part of a "second wave" of airliner attacks. Thing is, Jabarah was lying. The flight that came down in Queens failed because of problems with the plane's rudder, and Jabarah was later rearrested after it turned out he was giving plenty of information to al-Qaeda while feeding fairy tales to the US. This came after a period in which Jabarah was the "subject of some interrogation which was improper" while a prisoner in Oman (i.e. torture doesn't work, and it's a really bad way to start your relationship with your new double agent). Similar suggestions of other shoe bombings made by imprisoned terror suspects have never turned out to have any basis in fact.
The bigger reason we did something is because the response of politicians is always to do something. Even if that something makes no sense -- even if that something is actually counterproductive. The reason you're tiptoeing along the concourse in your Hanes (and tossing that Coke in the trash) has more to do with why jails are overpopulated than it does with stopping terrorists. When politicians see something on the news, and when pundits are screaming for action, the inclination is to provide that action. If that means a million gallons of Head n' Shoulders in airport trash cans or a life sentence for stealing a pizza, so what? What counts is that action was taken.
Dave Kilchen in his new book The Accidental Guerrilla describes terrorism in the terms of an auto-immune disorder. Like lupus, where the systems of the body designed to protect against infection turn on healthy tissue, our response to problems can often result in far more damage than the problem itself. It's not the terrorists that do the real damage -- it's how you respond to the terrorists. Certainly, if you look at all the ways that the United States has responded to the threat of terrorism since 9/11 we've damaged our overseas relationships and reputation, tossed much of our own constitution in the dumpster, and spent millions for every dollar that our enemies have spent. The self-inflicted wounds have been deeper, more serious, and more lingering than anything that was done from the outside.
The extent of the damage is often hard to judge. Since 9-11, self-inflicted wounds have turned up almost everywhere, even in subjects as distantly related as environmental law.
In 2008, the failure of a containment area released about 300 million gallons of water and coal ash mixed in a slurry. This is just the latest and largest of several huge spills which have flooded communities, ruined rivers, destroyed homes, taken lives, and all the other fun stuff that happens when a wall of black goop goes raging through a valley. While the physical damage caused by the floods is clear, the long term damage from the heavy metals and other chemicals in the slurry is less clear. Some agencies said fly ash slurries were serious problems.
A draft report last year by the federal Environmental Protection Agency found ... that the concentrations of arsenic to which people might be exposed through drinking water contaminated by fly ash could increase cancer risks several hundredfold.
Similarly, a 2006 study by the federally chartered National Research Council found that these coal-burning byproducts “often contain a mixture of metals and other constituents in sufficient quantities that they may pose public health and environmental concerns if improperly managed.” The study said “risks to human health and ecosystems” might occur when these contaminants entered drinking water supplies or surface water bodies.
Other agencies didn't agree.
The Tennessee Valley Authority has issued no warnings about the potential chemical dangers of the spill, saying there was as yet no evidence of toxic substances. “Most of that material is inert,” said Gilbert Francis Jr., a spokesman for the authority. “It does have some heavy metals within it, but it’s not toxic or anything.”
Attempts to more strictly regulate the storage of ash were met with opposition from coal companies and utilities. Which, as anyone watching the current health care debate might predict, squashed any thought of changing the regulations.
Senator Barbara Boxer has led an effort to at least put together a public database of ash storage sites so that people can judge the risk to the areas where they live. However, even this effort has been blocked not by coal companies or utilities, but by the DHS. How could it possibly be a national security interest to cover up the location of material that's "not toxic or anything?" It's not. In fact, even if the ash turns out to be as bad as its worst critics fear, blocking the database is far more dangerous than revealing the location of these sites. Not only has there not been any threat against these sites by terrorists, and no workable scenario by which they might cause a problem, coal slurry impoundments are with regularity, dousing parts of America with millions of gallons of this material. It doesn't take terrorists to make this happen.
Blocking the release of this information doesn't protect the citizens of the United States in any way. It's just another example of the same creeping secrecy that makes cities more difficult to manage because of secrecy over facilities. The same creeping secrecy that "blurs" national monuments from images and puts intentional gaps in public information. The same creeping secrecy that increasingly elevates the most unlikely attack -- the shoe bombers of the world -- above our right to know what's going on around us so that we can make informed decisions. The same secrecy that defends torturers.
It's worth remembering that the United States made it more than 170 years without any recognized need for a "national security" argument that acted as a trump card over any law. It wasn't until a Supreme Court ruling in 1953 that national security was enshrined as an all-purpose reason to deny access to information.
After the B-29 Superfortress crashed near Waycross, Ga., in 1948, killing nine of the 13 men aboard, the widows of the Philadelphia-area engineers sought damages against the Air Force in federal court. ... Arguing that the widows' claim that Air Force negligence was responsible for the crash was unsupported -- and that the release of any information on the aircraft or its mission would pose a threat to national security -- the government appealed. Though the government's appeal was defeated in the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court overturned the district court's verdict, ruling in United States v. Reynolds that even federal judges were not necessarily entitled to access sensitive information if national security could consequently suffer.
That ruling established the pattern that we've seen so often of late -- the use of "national security" to crush any other concern. It was not until decades later that the crash report on the B-29 became available. When it did, the results went unnoticed for years longer. It took the children of one of those dead engineers to discover that... the government was lying. The crash report revealed no national security concerns, but it did reveal a long history of maintenance issues, mechanical problems and pilot error. It revealed exactly what the widows of the dead engineers had said it would reveal. In that very first example of national security being used to deny information to the public, the government was doing nothing less than protecting itself and military contractors from legitimate scrutiny.
Which makes it a very good example of the vast majority of such assertions of national security since then.
Comments are closed on this story.