Two recent incidents, a tweeted photo of TSA agents examining a baby and a man shouting pounding on a cockpit door while shouting "Allah Akbar" being subdued by passengers, remind us of the absurd fictions of airline security. The biggest fiction of airline security is that it is secure. The second biggest fiction is that it is even meant to be secure.
The TSA represents the universal suspicion approach that gave every government agency its own SWAT team and every turnoff its own drunk driving checkpoint. Its fallacy is to ignore what terrorism is, instead equating any violation of their rules with terrorism, and then treating everyone like a suspected terrorist. It's the same dumb model applied to urban crime, scaled up to global terrorism. Stomp on the small violations and eventually you work your way up to the big ones. But if the model has some relevance in urban crime, it has none whatsoever in terrorism. Packing a slightly too large container of toothpaste in your carry on has no predictive value for terrorism. Instead a terrorist will carefully plan his attack while following all the written rules.
The dumb urban crime model has been applied to terrorism outside of airports too. Law enforcement agents work with mosques to stem radicalization. The 'radicalization' model of Islamic terrorism derives from the same urban crime model which says that graffiti is a gateway drug to drive by shootings. The model isn't completely wrong in either case, but it completely misses the larger point. Which is that the gang model only applies to amateur terrorists, most of whom fail on their own anyway. The mosques are happy enough to turn them in, while providing cover for the real players. Professional terrorists following a plan worked out for years ahead of time. And the TSA hasn't shown any aptitude for catching either terrorist type.
Airport security did not stop a single attack on September 11. And despite the assorted humiliations and rules imposed in the decade since, it has yet to do any better. Time after time again, when the terrorists are challenged it is by the passengers who rise to do battle with them. It is not governments that stop terrorists, but people who do.
The TSA model of airline security which says that everyone is a suspect, stands in stark contrast to what really works. A people's approach to airline security. An approach in which the passengers who have the most to lose carry the burden of vigilance. It is the job of airline security to prevent terrorists from bringing on board any force multipliers which would provide them with a decisive advantage. Beyond that it's the passengers' turn.
After September 11 everyone knows what the stakes are. There are no more illusions about being taken hostage. Or about obedience equating to survival. But the government's approach to airline security still uses the obedience is survival model. Comply with the authorities and we'll protect you. But everyone knows the authorities can't protect them. Only the people can protect themselves. The TSA attempts to maintain order by imposing absolute control over the environment. But control is an illusion. Every security system has its flaws and given time those weak points will be found and exploited. You can look through people's clothes, but you can't look into their hearts.
The first and final layer of defense is still the people. That was true 10 years ago and it's still true today. But it's an obvious fact that the authorities have done their best to obscure and deny. As flawed as the official model of national security is, it's the only one that they will admit even exists. And that's the model that has brought us terrorists flying easily from Saudi Arabia to America, gallivanting through the White House, and lecturing law enforcement agencies on terrorism. The more the government strives for absolute control of the situation, the worse it becomes.
When passengers or pilots get nervous about someone, instead of listening to their worries, they're accused of racism. But when the TSA's regs decide that babies present a clear and active danger, then no one is allowed to question that. And that is the difference between a people's model of airline security and the same broken dumb model. The people's model tries to sense threats, the TSA model treats everything as a threat, and is accordingly unable to identify individual threats.
The bureaucratic model has been the biggest obstacle to America's adaptation to new wars. WW2 and Vietnam were both deadly examples of first class men bogged down by a system that didn't know how to use them. By the time the adjustment was made from the wars of the last generation, far too many good men were dead. And the same thing is happening all over again. We are adapting very slowly to a new kind of war. And the domestic portion of the conflict is a schizophrenic mess. A stepchild of the struggle against urban blight and drugs.
The government is at least as paranoid about vigilantism as it is about terrorism. Perhaps even more so. But then institutions always fear an usurpation of their authority, more than outright failure. A terrorist attack would mean lives lost, but a power shift would have much more disturbing implications for a system that has never let go of its progressive faith in big government. Whether it's terrorists on planes or illegal aliens sneaking in across the Mexican border, the authorities promise that they are on it, but their enforcement mechanisms disregard the problem, while their political mouthpieces attack those who point this out.
Airline terrorism is a direct attack on the most sophisticated section of the global transportation system. It's why Israel made airline security such a top priority. To lose the air route, is to be cut off. The United States focused just as obsessively on airline security, but without admitting that the problem was not slightly larger tubes of toothpaste, but terrorists of a particular ideology and from a particular part of the world. The Israeli model is imperfect, but it does address the actual threat. The TSA model doesn't address the threat, but a random grab bag of techniques. But both models have their limitations. In the age of crowdsourcing, the best form of airline security is other passengers.
Governments oppose empowering the public to resist terrorism, because they fear losing control. The rise of a United States government that is less representative and more bureaucratic, not accidentally, but as an outgrowth of a progressive ideology that treats government as a science, rather than a consensus, has also meant the rise of institutions jealous of their authority. Restoring power to the people in anathema to their ideology and their job security. It is easier to create another useless agency, than it is to turn to the people for help.
The trap is a difficult one to overcome. Every country that faces terrorism has gotten caught up in it. But few countries have a culture that can allow the people to control their own destiny. And yet that culture has been sidelined more and more since September 11. But even before that as well. The urban model of law enforcement went national long before then. Universal suspicion and escalation had become the dominant modes. Compliance was dictated as the only proper response. Sit, wait and follow instructions. But on the modern airliner, the people are taking back the responsibility for their own security. No one calls it vigilantism. No one wants to. That's a dangerous word. But the meaning of vigilante is one who stands watch.
In an age of terror, it is the people who stand watch and the authorities who watch dumbly. A people's approach to national security recognizes that reality and extends it beyond the airliner, restoring the moral authority of the citizen to police his nation's borders and serve as the first and final line of defense against terror.