Posted by Jerrod @ 9:12 pm on December 29th 2009

When systems fail, don’t do more, do different

The BBC reports that the last bombing attempt on an American airline was the result of “systemic failure”. In this, I agree. What I am disappointed in though, is that the proposed changes aren’t at all what are needed. I choked on my coffee this morning when I read that one new proposed rule is that people shouldn’t be allowed out of their seats during the last hour of flights and shouldn’t have access to hand luggage during that time.


First off, this rule is wholly unenforceable for families. If you have infants, you have to have access to baby care items. If you have kids, you need to be able to keep them entertained. And even if you aren’t an infant, you probably are watching a DVD, using a laptop, listening to an iPod, reading a Kindle, playing a video game, doing something electronic that you’ll have to shut off at the last minute. With this new rule, either you will have to stow this stuff an hour before landing or you’ll have to hold it on your lap. Oh wait, there’s a rule against that already.

But the worst part of this rule is how completely, totally, wholly, 100%, entirely, massively, obliviously, and obviously worthless for stopping an attack like the one that happened over the holiday. If someone does succeed in smuggling parts onto a plane, having a rule against standing up or opening your bags during the last 60 minutes only means that they’ll attempt to set of the bomb 61 minutes or more before landing. What if he had tried to set the bomb off during the first hour? Would we just have to wait longer before getting out of our seats? What if it was in the middle of the flight? Would they institute a “everyone seated time” during the middle hour of all flights?

I guess maybe the rule might be effective at providing peace of mind for the last 60 minutes, except that everyone is going to be pissed off because they have to just sit there listening children cry.

I guess we aren’t allowed to have blankets on our laps any more on airplanes. Why? It’s true that this guy was trying to do his thing under a blanket, but that didn’t matter. He was discovered and stopped, which is another important point. These kinds of attacks are hard to pull off. This wasn’t a successful attack either; he was stopped, as was Richard Reid who tried to pull essentially the same stunt. I can’t support the assertion that it was a systemic failure when we stopped it.

The type of failure we experienced will always happen. There is no security system that is 100%. Our security mindset as a nation is infantile and has yet to understand this basic precept. Our leaders aren’t willing to even attempt to explain this and instead choose to adopt measures that cost a lot (must be good!) or give the appearance of effectiveness. We focus on closing the barn doors after the horses are out, and we close windows and air vents as well, even though that has nothing to do with keeping horses in the barn.

We need to spend less effort trying to stop the last attack again. When there are obvious security holes or effective countermeasures to be taken, of course these changes should be implemented. Strengthening cockpit doors following 9/11 is a prime example of this. But making us take off our shoes or toss bottles of liquids just means that they’ll stuff bombs in their underwear and use powders or combine two or three 100ml bottles or even build liquid bombs that they can easily toss in the checkpoint garbage cans before getting on a plane and flying away while the bomb blows up a line of people waiting for a metal detector.

We need to spend more effort on stopping these people before they get to the airport. More money spent on investigation, observation, and intelligence with less money spent on fancy machines that don’t get used consistently if at all. Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber, had been reported to the authorities yet wasn’t investigated, vetted, and properly monitored. How many nudie microwave scanners would we have had to give up to get enough investigative manpower and monitoring systems to have kept this guy off the plane or at least gotten more scrutiny when he tried to get on?

We need to accept that our system will never be 100% safe and secure. Once we realize that, it seems kind of pointless to give up blankets, bathroom breaks, and carry-on luggage just to end up with the same level of security. And just because I point out that we aren’t completely safe doesn’t mean that we aren’t safe at all. These attacks are rare and difficult to execute: we are still very very safe flying on planes. I feel safer from a terrorist attack once I’m in the air than when I’m in a crowded check-in line, actually. I’m surprised we haven’t seen an attack on airport lobbies since they are crowded places full of huge parcels. It would be far easier to build a big bomb in a suitcase (or more likely, several of them) and hit a major airport check-in area than to blow up a plane mid-flight. Psychologically the effect would be the same if not worse. But inside a plane, I know that the passengers aren’t going to stand for any monkey business.

Unfortunately, I have no faith that we’re going to see any reduction in expensive and worthless (not to mention inconvenient and annoying) security theater measures and expect attempts to improve the intelligence side of the issue are likely to exacerbate the problem by gathering more rather than better raw data. In the meantime, I’m going to really commit to dieting, as its probably going to get to the point where we’ll have to disrobe entirely to board a plane in my lifetime.


  1. Two of our friends just flew over with an infant, two days after Christmas Day. The new rules are a pain in the arse for people like them, for sure.

    Comment by Adam — 1/2/2010 @ 1:54 pm

  2. Always remember, it is your Zionist friends (and enemies) that are largely responsible for these tremendous inconveniences, costs and, more importantly, personal risks.

    Comment by daveg — 1/3/2010 @ 1:13 pm

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