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In the wake of a terror attempt on NW Flight 253, New Years travelers will run into new security measures to ward off additional attacks. Longtime critics of tedious "security theater" measures at airports are grousing that the new measures--which forbid passengers to leave their seats, have items on their lap, or access carry-on items in the final hour of flight--are as ineffective as they are inconvenient. Here are the primary objections, as well as one defense mounted on behalf of the government:


  • What Is Left of Flying Now? The conservative National Review's John Miller mocks the latest restrictions: "We may not be allowed to read books during the final hour of flights anymore, but at least we can look out the windows. It will be best, however," he writes, referring to new rules forbidding flight crews from announcing the location of the plane, "if we don't know where we are ... Wouldn't it be safer just to board up the windows?" His colleague Mark Steyn looks ahead to each new restriction as "some enterprising jihadist" figures out a new way to attack: "Another couple of attempted takedowns and they might as well ship us freight ..." In a show of bipartisan exasperation, liberal Kevin Drum asks "why not just ban air flight entirely and be done with it?"
  • Is This Overkill? "There have been precisely three attempts over the last eight years," writes an irate James Joyner at Outside the Beltway, "to commit acts of terrorism aboard commercial aircraft. All of them clownishly inept and easily thwarted by the passengers." He's not sure the current response is warranted. At FiveThirtyEight, number cruncher Nate Silver puts it in starker terms, calculating total number of terrorist attempts at attack per airborne hours, days, and years. He concludes that "the odds of being on given departure which is the subject of a terrorist incident have been 1 in 10,408,947 over the past decade. By contrast, the odds of being struck by lightning in a given year are about 1 in 500,000. This means that you could board 20 flights per year and still be less likely to be the subject of an attempted terrorist attack than to be struck by lightning."
  • This Won't Even Work Longtime critic of TSA Jeffrey Goldberg repeats his usual points that "by the time the terrorist arrives at the airport, it's generally too late to stop him," and that "unless and until the TSA begins invasive body searches, most measures taken at security checkpoints in U.S. airports should be considered mere security theater." Law professor Stephen Bainbridge points out that "none of [the] new restrictions would have impeded the bomber. He was fine with staying in his seat. To the contrary, it was the passenger who subdued the bomber that left his seat. Extra screening of carry on luggage would have been no problem for the bomber, since the bomber had the bomb sewn into his underwear."
  • The Measures That Do Work Jon Clements at the Daily Mirror reports a conversation with a U.S. Homeland Security official in which the official admitted that one of the most effective security measures is simply "passenger vigilance, in the spirit of Flight 93," the flight on September 11 in which passengers charged the terrorist-run cockpit.Security commentator Bruce Schneier reiterates his usual point that "only two things have made flying safer [since 9/11]: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers."
  • Back Off, Folks: This Actually Makes Some Sense The Volokh Conspiracy's Orin Kerr is one of the few to defend the measures. Writing that "emotions run high when it comes to commenting on air travel security restrictions," likely because "they are among the few examples" of government anti-terrorist actions "that have a clear impact on the convenience of regular people," Kerr argues that "there may be a strategy going on here that goes beyond just 'security theater,'" as so many critics call it. At least the after-the-fact changes in security "force Al Qaeda to change tactics," he writes, noting that "experience suggests that the terrorists associated with Al Qaeda like to try the same thing again."
  • The Crippling of the Airline Industry "So, to recap," writes Laura Clawson at The Daily Kos, "Improvements in airport security have historically not worked. Yet, in response to a failed terrorism attempt, a struggling industry in a struggling economy, and the poor saps stuck as its customers, will have to deal with more restrictions imposed not because there's any empirical support for their effectiveness, but so the TSA can appear to be Vigilant and Responsive." She argues that "if some terrorist organization wanted to change its stated goals to killing the US airline industry, they could probably declare victory relatively soon." Stephen Bainbridge wonders if, in fact, crippling the airline industry really is the goal.

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