January 14, 2010
Damn it. Just when I was ready to book my winter getaway, some blockhead with a bomb in his boxers tries to blow up a plane. Just when they were loosening up a bit at airport security, now it's back to full humiliation mode. Who knows what they'll make us take off this time, or where they'll pass the wand. Once in the air, we can't even relax with our Bloody Mary and blue corn chips; we're each profiling the other passengers and making personal no-fly lists — perhaps the most sensible security measure of all.
Thank God the fool tried to set himself off at his seat where everybody could watch him work and jumped him. He may have succeeded had he done it in the privacy of the plane's privy. Maybe he'd thought the better of dying at that moment but could placate Allah and Al-Qaeda, not necessarily in that order, by feigning a try and begging for an intervention. If it weren't so serious, it would be a comedy Peter Sellers would love.
One thing you have to say about terrorism: It really really works. If a country goes to war against a standing army, the minds of its citizens focus on a visible enemy and muster their efforts, from military to factory to victory garden, to defeat it. With terrorism, there is no army, and as we see even more clearly from this case, there is no nation either, just small cells of conspirators or even loners scattered all over the globe, communicating by computer; candidates for missions like this one sneak in for secretive seminars with explosives experts hidden in a myriad of places and start their deadly journeys from unlikely spots. The enemy is nowhere and everywhere at once, and the sheer uncertainty can drive us crazy. That's why war movies are less frightening than horror movies: In the former, the fear of the viewer is channeled and resolved through direct action against an obvious target; in the latter, the fear just hangs there because you never know when or where the stalker will strike next.
Even though historically the chances of being taken down by a terrorist on your next airplane flight are far less than being taken down by mechanical malfunction, paranoia at the possibility runs madly through our minds, ironically made the worse by the security directives issued reactively after each novel threat: first the pocket-knives and scissors, then the shoes, then the liquids, now the blankets and bathroom visits.
As common sense dictates and many security experts have acknowledged, it's impossible to prevent every terrorist attack; human ingenuity, especially in the pursuit of evil, will inevitably trump the best efforts to thwart it from time to time.
President Obama brought some sense to the situation when he told the country not to "succumb to a siege mentality": "Great and proud nations do not hunker down and hide behind walls of suspicion and mistrust," he said. But he simultaneously canceled out that breath of reason by resurrecting the old Bush line, "We are at war."
Can we retire than metaphor, please? The only anti-terrorist actions resembling war are sometime skirmishes with Taliban swamp-foxes in Afghanistan, and those remote-controlled drone strikes around Pakistan, both far removed in place and purpose from the dynamics of this latest incident. Military models, conventional or revisionist, simply don't work against terrorism; it's trying to kill mosquitoes with a baseball bat. They're only meant to comfort the jittery American soul, trillions spent to persuade the public that their government is doing something they can see.
But this is not war. It's a test of wits to see who can outsmart the other — one other being a byzantine alphabet soup of surveillance agencies, each with enormous databases of suspicious persons, and which, in our bomber's case, were unable to "connect the dots"; and the other other being countless numbers of suicidals from everywhere who may not have enough dots to connect.
Of course, let's keep trying to connect what dots there are, and be more restrictive on issuing and pulling visas. But beyond that, let's aggressively seek a trans-national agreement to make airport security measures uniform and practical, and most importantly and effectively, pour our resources into works of peace and progress, to reverse the image of a bellicose America and defuse at least some of the bombs of hatred set to go off in people's brains.