disproportionate response?

August 11, 2006

In reaction to yesterday’s revelation of a thwarted terrorist plot involving explosive liquids that were to be smuggled onboard several transatlantic flights and then set off, the Department of Homeland Security has, for the first time in the nation’s history, raised the terror threat level to red, indicating an expectation of “imminent attack”. The resulting security increases have crippled the airline industry, grounding flights both here and abroad and forcing passengers to endure long waits, forgo electronics and liquids on flights, and submit to full searches of carry-on baggage. While UK authorities have opined that several conspirators may still be at large, the severity of the US response to the plot begs the question of what, exactly, demands this extreme level of alertness.

What has changed since yesterday? Very little, if you ask me. One wonders why, if authorities have known “for years” of the threat posed by liquid explosives, they did not impose restrictions prior to this very public revelation. It was a threat before now, and today’s abrupt institution of a ban on liquids and electronics aboard flights seems calculated to exude decisiveness more than to effectively reduce a threat to America. And if anything is clear from the intolerable delays brought on by new security policies, it is that the country as a whole cannot function, at least not as it normally does, under such restrictions. Something will have to change, and soon.

The expected “imminent attack” inherent in the elevated threat level is also puzzling: does an announcment of a foiled plan really mean that some other nefarious scheme is already in motion, and that it is of the same type? It seems improbable, to say the least. We may feel safer knowing that the government is taking action to “protect” its citizens from terrorism, but today’s response also, whether intentionally or not, makes us more afraid, for it indicates that those in power, that those who are informed in such matters, believe that today, more than ever, the “Islamic fascists” want Americans dead.

I would argue, then, that we are not in imminent danger of being attacked and that these new security measures do not make us significantly safer; terrorists continue to find ever more elaborate ways of avoiding detection in carrying out their deadly mission, and today’s events serve only to underscore that grim reality and not to increase its potential for harm. We are at war–of this there can be no doubt–but we must not allow that fact to paralyze us with paranoia and fear. Calm, rational thought is sorely needed here, and I do not see that in either the media’s sensationalized coverage of events or the government’s rash response.

Update: Perhaps I spoke too soon about the country’s inability to function normally under the burden of additional security restrictions; I underestimated the adaptability of American citizens already accustomed to rigorous screening procedures, and for that I apologize.  This does not, I hope you will agree, change my overall argument appreciably: these new rules just aren’t making us safer and are really unnecessary even if they cause only minor inconveniences.  Of course, passengers departing from London airports are facing even more ridiculous measures such as a total ban on carry-on luggage.  May sanity return shortly.

–D. S. W.

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