Airline sanity check

I posted on Thursday about the need for people to stop behaving like idiots on airplanes, and ending up getting airport security, the FBI, and even a pair of F-15 fighter jets involved with their shenanigans. Coincidentally, that same day an author named Bruce Schneier published a brilliant opinion piece online about the need to stop panicking about airline security.

Point, and counterpoint. Mr. Schneier does a great job of bringing us back to reality, and reminding us that while passengers can stop behaving like jackasses, it’s also true that the government, airlines, and the general public can all stop overreacting as well.

He describes our reactionary tendencies pretty aptly:

We’re going to beef up airport security, because Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab allegedly snuck a bomb through a security checkpoint. We’re going to intensively screen Nigerians, because he is Nigerian. We’re going to field full body scanners, because they might have noticed the PETN that authorities say was hidden in his underwear. And so on.

His point certainly rang true to me when I read it. Yes, it’s alarming that this man got through Security and made an attempt against the plane. But going into a blind panic about a one-off scenario, which will almost certainly never happen again, may not be the best use of our time and effort. He goes on to say:

We’re doing these things even though this particular plot was chosen precisely because we weren’t screening for it; future al Qaeda attacks rarely look like past attacks; and the terrorist threat is far broader than attacks against airplanes.

We’re doing these things even though airplane terrorism is incredibly rare, the risk is no greater today than it was in previous decades, the taxi to the airport is still more dangerous than the flight, and ten times as many Americans are killed by lightning as by terrorists.

Granted, we’ve all heard the “you’re more likely to be hit by lightning than to be in a plane crash” statistics. We’re told you’re more likely to win the lottery than to be the victim of a terrorist attack, and so on. The article defers to biology as the culprit: our brains are much better at clinging to experience, even spectacularly rare but devastating experience, than they are at rationally projecting true risk. “We exaggerate spectacular rare events, and downplay familiar and common ones,” he says, and he’s got a point.

We can see the effects of this all the time. We fear being murdered, kidnapped, raped and assaulted by strangers, when it’s far more likely that the perpetrator of such offenses is a relative or a friend. We fear school shootings, even though a school is almost always the safest place a child can be. We worry about shark attacks instead of fatal dog or pig attacks — both far more common. In the U.S., over 38,000 people die each year in car crashes; that’s as many deaths as 9/11 each and every month, year after year.

Overreacting to the rare and spectacular is natural. We tend to base risk analysis on personal story rather than on data. If a friend gets mugged in a foreign country, that story is more likely to affect how safe you feel in that country than abstract crime statistics.

All of this leads to a cycle of fear, especially when we’ve got 24-hour news stations (and, of course, the Internet) telling us of all the fantastically terrifying things that are happening in the world around us. We’re information junkies, but the information we get from the media is often biased towards sensationalism. If you’ve ever heard the saying “if it bleeds, it leads” about news broadcasts, you probably found yourself acknowledging that it’s often true. We sit down and immerse ourselves in generated fear.

And once we’re scared, we need to “do something” — even if that something doesn’t make sense and is ineffective. We need to do something directly related to the story that’s making us scared. We implement full body scanners at airports. We pass the Patriot Act. We don’t let our children go to playgrounds unsupervised. Instead of implementing effective, but more general, security measures to reduce the overall risk, we concentrate on making the fearful story go away. Yes, it’s security theater, but it makes us feel safer.

So what should we do about it? Clearly doing nothing isn’t a viable option… It would potentially encourage terrorists to try more often, try harder, etc. But one does have to wonder whether air travel is THAT much safer now that we can’t carry shampoo and have to x-ray our shoes. Mr. Schneier does have a solution in mind, fortunately:

Focus on the general risk of terrorism, and not the specific threat of airplane bombings using PETN-filled underwear. Focus on the general risk of troubled teens, and not the specific threat of a lone gunman wandering around a school. Ignore the movie-plot threats, and concentrate on the real risks.

Indeed, sir. Indeed.

3 Responses to Airline sanity check

  1. Jason says:

    The level of stupidity from the people that travel never ceases to amaze me. It’s just like that guy in Newark who walked into a secured zone to meet someone – the guard was wrong for leaving their post but come on… Everyone knows you have to meet your people in baggage claim or have a ticket to clear security.

  2. dane says:

    i take issue with this statement:

    “…because Umar Farouk AbdulMutallab allegedly snuck a bomb through a security checkpoint.”

    allegedly? i thought we were all pretty clear on that one.

  3. gatoruptown says:

    Dane, it’s the usual practice of referring to someone as a “suspect” or saying they “allegedly” did something, until they’re found guilty in a court of law.

    I agree the practical response is a little silly: it seems perfectly clear from everything witnesses have recounted that he did, in fact, try to do set off an explosive of some sort. But the man plead not guilty, so I suppose the technically correct thing to do is assume he’s innocent until proven guilty. (Which none of us will do – but language on a media website is likely to at least pretend)

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