Reflections on Flight 253 and Balancing Security with Freedoms28 Jan 2010
It seems nothing short of a miracle that Detroit-bound Flight 253 was not blown up on Christmas Day 2009, when a Nigerian man tried to detonate a bomb hidden on his person! As we all know by now, the man came alarmingly close to carrying out his devious plan, and we have all been reminded, once again, of the need for increased vigilance and tighter security to protect our borders.
That being said, the incident should prompt a careful reexamination of the effectiveness of existing security measures, because the Nigerian suspect was allowed to board the plane despite several warning signs that should have aroused official suspicion – the fact that he bought his plane ticket with cash, that his name was on a government watch list, that his father had warned the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria about his son’s apparent radicalization, among other factors. In other words, we had security procedures in place to protect the traveling public, and all kinds of forewarning about the would-be terrorist bomber, but none of it appears to have made much of a difference.
The terrorist was able to board the plane, and was really close to not just blowing up the plane, but more importantly, shattering our feeling of protection and safety, replacing it with a feeling of betrayal by largest federal agency created in our history, the DHS. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has been entrusted with the job of protecting us, at the cost of billions of taxpayer dollars. Obviously, there were systemic failures, as President Obama himself has acknowledged, and the gaps in our security need to be filled. Simply adding “more” security is not the answer, though. If our security systems are too intrusive, if they appear to be too harsh and unwelcoming, we will end up isolating ourselves from the rest of the world, because people will think twice about coming to the United States for work, study, or even vacation if the border hassles are too onerous. The response to this event needs to be measured, carefully calibrated to address known weaknesses in our security systems, without causing unreasonable delays or difficulties for the traveling public.
The traveling public is willing to put up with a lot to make sure that they, their families and loved ones are all safe. Most people will agree to a certain level of intrusiveness and hassle if they believe that it actually makes a difference. What we don’t need is another watch list that is highly successful in annoying innocent travelers by delaying their boarding of an aircraft or actually preventing them from boarding unnecessarily, but incapable of singling out those whose intention is only to do us harm. Every new security measure costs something – in cold, hard cash, to be sure – but also in terms our personal liberties, our sense of privacy, our openness as a society, and our hospitality toward people from other countries. We all want the benefits of more secure borders and a transportation system that can protect us from terrorists, but we nonetheless have vital national interests in maintaining borders that are as open as possible, even in the face of ongoing threats. Therein lies the importance of the delicate balance between security and the protection of certain freedoms that must be nurtured.
Our economy and culture depend on the reasonably free flow of people and ideas across our borders. It is admittedly difficult to strain out the tiny percentage of bad guys from the genuine commerce and ideas, and we can be thankful that this job generally is being done quite well, as evidenced by the infrequency of attacks on our soil since 9/11. But failures within the system should not prompt us to overreact in a way that would isolate us any further from the rest of the world. If we cut ourselves off completely, the terrorists have won in more ways than one. This is because our economy will likely be in the doldrums and many of our freedoms will be lost under the iron cloak of national security. So we may think we have won, only to find we have won the battle of temporary security but lost the war as we watch our decline as the world’s greatest leader in science, technology, entrepreneurship and many other fields. In the end the very freedoms and the greatness of America that attracted the best and brightest to our shores will be lost if we make it too difficult or unpleasant for them to come here.