Saturday, July 23, 2005

Dealing with Terrorism

The New York Times describes a police decision -- presumably in response to the London bombings -- to start random inspections of bags on the city subway system. In my opinion, this decision is a classic example of how not to deal with terrorism. One of the central objectives of terrorism is to introduce discomfort and pain into the average individual's way of life. All that is achieved by random inspection is that life just got a whole lot more annoying for a whole lot more people, with no accompanying improvement in overall human safety. There are just so many ways for the determined attacker to cause destruction that stopping some people on the subway will make no difference at all, beyond incentivizing the public to stop using public transport and burn more gas made from imported oil.

Every time I go through the hassle of removing my shoes to clear security at an airport, I visualize Osama dancing with glee at the havoc he's wreaked on easy air travel. (By the way, have you noticed how the security personnel always say, "We highly recommend that you take off your shoes" and never, "Please take off your shoes"? One slow day, I asked one of them what "highly recommend" meant. Did that mean I had a choice? She looked slightly taken aback by the question and turned to talk to her supervisor. He came over and told me, no, I didn't. Well, thanks for being upfront about it. )


Blogger madatadam said...

The random check, as you say, won't stop the determined attacker but it surely is a simple means to make a terrorist's task that much more difficult. A classic remedy like the compound wall or the fence that people build around their property. The burglar or the chicken-stealer, determined enough, will not have much trouble scaling these puny obstacles. But unless we get all gadgety, they are a good first barrier making the ordinary criminal think twice. Cat and mouse games law and crime play against each other and sometimes Occam's irreverent razor pares down the odds. Inconveniencing people, of course, is a problem but such measures tend to prop sagging public morale and sense of security.

7/24/2005 1:32 AM  
Anonymous Cpr said...

Re: the shoes, IIRC you are not required to take anything off. You can walk through the metal detector wearing full medeival body armor if you so choose. What follows is that the detector probably goes off requiring you to go through an even more delaying and painful pad-down type search and more thorough examination. Also, I think you can buy shoes that "guarantee" having no metal inside, so called "airplane shoes" which should work just fine, not requiring you to take them off as you walk through.

7/25/2005 4:04 PM  
Anonymous Cpr said...

I guess I shd modify my comment to read that you are not required to take anything off the FIRST time you walk through.
Part of the "further scrutiny" might include requiring you to remove metal-related stuff upto the point where you can pass through the detector without setting it off

7/25/2005 4:09 PM  
Anonymous Gummadi said...

I think you got this thing wrong. The ideal goal would be to inspect only "suspicious looking" people. The random checks is a politically/socially acceptable cover to avoid the appearance of judging people by their "looks". Personally I think it is a right strategy. Granted, this strategy might lead to 1000 checks a day rather than 10 checks. Given the choice between inconveniencing 1000 people versus antagonizing 10 people, I would pick the former anyday.

7/25/2005 5:27 PM  
Blogger Prasanna said...

Lots of feedback!

Madatadam: In this particular case, the check is particularly useless because the police can only request to search. If somebody refuses, they are at perfect liberty to walk away without being searched. So, there is no barrier to stop them from just walking into another station. In any case, the point is not whether the checks deter terrorism. The question whether it deters terrorism sufficiently to be worth the inconvenience it causes everybody. My answer is a vehement No.

Gummadi: The above also applies to your argument. In addition, I am led to believe that the screening will be truly random (or pseudo-random), not targeted.

CPR: The issue is not whether there is metal in your shoes or not. They want to detect plastic explosives. I was wearing sneakers with rubber soles. That didn't stop them from requiring the shoes off.

Also see other blogs commenting on this:

7/25/2005 5:40 PM  
Anonymous cpr said...

You're right. You doesn't have to set off the alarm for them to request additional screening as explained by the TSA at

This IS a little frustrating. Is there anything special about shoes that allows them to carry these explosive materials? Would trouser pockets not work? So are we just to thank the shoe bomber for not carrying the explosives in his pockets?

7/26/2005 4:58 PM  

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