Security Is An Illusion, But One We Accept

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There is no such thing as perfect security. There never will be. It would take a much larger security force a much longer time to ensure that every chemical brought aboard an airplane cannot be combined with another chemical to make something spark. In the U.S., we've chosen to emphasize the theatrical aspect of airline security -- screening areas, air marshals, lots of beeping noises, regular procedures, talk about "random" searches and "hidden" procedures -- over perfect target hardening. That's reasonable, because target hardening is beyond current technology, beyond current funding levels, and beyond our tolerance for inconvenience.

The U.S. government has done a lot, it should be said, even though we only seem to hear about the flaws. It turns out that passengers ARE re-screened at international airports if they're heading to the U.S., as several Tweeps who've traveled from Lagos (which, in November, was found to be compliant with international security standards by the TSA) to Amsterdam's Schipol Airport through to Detroit say they are always re-screened and re-screened thoroughly. The truth is that it's not hard to find out how to make something spark on an airplane.

That's why bad guys and gals are put on watch lists. But a mere e-mail or cell phone connection to a nefarious character can put you on a watch list -- and a lot of of folks unwittingly have a tangential connection to bad folks. Chances are that people who travel to Central Asia will interact with someone who is swept up in an NSA database net...the number of people on watch lists are orders of magnitude larger than the number of people on no-fly lists. Folks who are on watch lists are supposed to be subjected to tighter screening, but chemically mixed or separated devices are less likely to be found by security agents. If watch list folks are on flights inbound for the U.S., the TSA is supposed to figure this out and notify the FBI and the National Counterterrorism Center. That's the procedure, and it's been used successfully to prevent a number of nefarious chaps from entering the U.S.

So -- if secondary screening in Amsterdam and a validated watch list hit can't keep someone from trying to blow up an airplane, what can?
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Marc Ambinder is an Atlantic contributing editor. He is also a senior contributor at Defense One, a contributing editor at GQ, and a regular contributor at The Week.

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