FROM WIRED | JUNE 5, 2017
AFTER THIS WEEKEND’S attacks in London, President Trump became embroiled in a spat with the city’s mayor, where the president criticized British authorities for not taking the threat of terrorism seriously enough. In its crude way, that confrontation underscored a deeper divide between the United States and much of the rest of the world over what taking terrorism seriously means.
For weeks before these most recent attacks, US and European officials have been locked in a debate about whether to ban laptops from airline passengers’ carry-ons. In multiple interviews, Homeland Security chief John Kelly has alluded to credible threats picked up by US intelligence that ISIS or other groups have developed a technology that would allow for a bomb small enough to fit in a functional laptop, and that as a result he was considering a ban on some flights originating from Europe to the United States or possibly all international flights in and out of the United States. “There’s a real threat—numerous threats against aviation,” Kelly told Fox News. “That’s really the thing that they are obsessed with, the terrorists, the idea of knocking down an airplane in flight, particularly if it’s a US carrier, particularly if it’s full of mostly US folks.”
Having already banned laptops and tablets from carry-on luggage on flights originating from several Middle East airports, Kelly has been weighing whether to vastly expand that ban. European security and aviation officials vehemently oppose the idea. But the disagreement over laptops obscures the bigger conflict. At heart, it exposes a dramatic difference in attitudes about safety and security . While the Europeans see larger questions of costs and benefits in play, the United States leans towards a zero-tolerance approach to threats that is unrealistic and costly. In the rush to fetishize airplane attacks above all else, America’s distorted perception of risk ultimately leaves everyone more scared and no safer.
Do you disrupt the ebb and flow of people worldwide because of draconian security and a heightened climate of fear?
As it became clear that the US was contemplating a widespread ban that would require storing laptops in the cargo hold, European officials reacted. While no one has publicly disputed the possible threat posed by explosives embedded in laptops, EU aviation officials and intelligence groups have taken a substantially different approach.
First, they have focused on the possibility that hundreds of electronic devices in a baggage hold could be a severe fire hazard should the lithium-ion batteries in those devices catch fire. That echoes similar concerns voiced by the US Federal Aviation Administration last year, and follows several incidents of batteries catching fire during passenger flights in 2016 as well as on several cargo planes in recent years. (If any reminder of that risk was needed, just this week a JetBlue flight made an emergency landing in Grand Rapids, Michigan, after a lithium battery ignited in a passenger’s backpack.) The EU argued that it was unwise to exchange one risk—a terrorist with a laptop or tablet bomb detonating it in-flight—for another: a batch of batteries catching fire in cargo hold and bringing down a plane, especially when the risk of the latter is known and has actually happened, while the former is speculative.
Beyond that specific tradeoff, the EU has taken a more holistic view of risks, threats, and costs. The risk of a laptop bomb is real, but so are the equivalent risks of a lithium battery fire in a cargo hold. Both bring down a plane. Those are not the only considerations. Is the threat immediate and substantial enough to justify the upending of travel, tourism, and global connectivity and thereby cost untold billions in actual economic losses? Do you disrupt the ebb and flow of people worldwide because of draconian security and a heightened climate of fear?
One response is that the lost lives from one downed airplane by far trump those costs. But the EU response to the same intelligence is that the answer isn’t so obvious. Yes, preventing a bomb on an airplane ranks as a first-order priority for all nations. No one disputes that. What is at dispute is how far authorities should go to disrupt travel to protect against possible threats. The EU position is that absent a more tangible threat, the disruptions are too costly; the US position appears to be that any tangible threat can merit any disruption. That has been part of the American mindset for some time, but it seems to have received new license in the first months of the Trump administration.
At any given time, there are a lattice of potential threats. Absent a state of martial law, vastly curtailed freedoms, or much better surveillance and scanning technology, it is impossible to inoculate against those completely. Yes, the example of Israel is often invoked, with its embrace of targeted screenings based on profiling as well as a more attuned citizenry ready to react to anything that may be only a whiff out of a perceived norm. But that takes a societal shift and a consensus toward security which is impossible to mandate by simply passing new laws or establishing new protocols.
Intelligence agencies are tasked with identifying threats, and they are often extremely good at that. The United States spends tens of billions of dollars annually to hone its information gathering and analysis, but what one does with that information falls in the realm of policy, and there, since 9/11 and increasing steadily since, the US has taken a zero-tolerance stance towards attacks that leads directly to our muddled and often extreme reactions to threats against airplanes.
It’s certainly accurate, as Secretary Kelly remarked, that since 9/11, groups such as ISIS have had an obsession with bringing down commercial airliners packed with Westerners. (Investigators suspect that a computer bomb downed an Egypt Air flight in 2015, but that has yet to be confirmed officially.) In response, the United States has developed a similar obsession. That has led to the now-familiar screening at airports, the ritual partial disrobing, the neat packaging of mini-bottles, and a slew of safe traveler programs for those willing to register their fingerprints and vital details in return for less intensive scrutiny. Having travelled widely in past decade-plus, I know that every airport in the world has adopted some it not all of those protocols. But nowhere in the world is airport security such an awkward blend of rigorous and seemingly arbitrary as in the United States.
Many have dubbed the American approach “security theater,” because while it does reduce the likelihood of a bomb carried by an individual onto a plane, it does nothing to reduce what would seem equal threats such as someone aiming a rocket launcher at landing aircraft. And officials have only recently addressed greater threats by turning an eye to railroad cars and shipping containers. Airplanes, however, have a unique place stemming from 9/11.
Going to the maximum degree to reduce to nearly zero the chance of a plane being brought down by an act of terrorism is appealingly simple. But as the EU’s less extreme response to the same threat shows, the aspiration to perfect safety doesn’t carry a measurable safety advantage. At the same time, it has the potential to cause greater harm through damage to society and to people’s lives and livelihood. Those harms—lost jobs, for instance, if tourism is reduced substantially—are not immaterial. In the US, social scientists and political pundits alike have zeroed in on the link between economic devastation and higher mortality in communities across the country. Are those “fatalities” caused in part by economic dislocations any less “fatal” because they happen less violently than terrorism?
It wasn’t always that way. Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, plane hijackings were surprising common around the world, with 160 American airplanes hijacked between 1961 and 1973, many by Cubans. That did not lead to mass fear or hysteria, though it did lead to metal detectors being installed at airports. It’s hard to fathom today how blasé society was then about hijackings. But it is a reminder how far down the path of fear we have come. After 9/11, there was a gallows humor to travel, as many quipped that soon we would all be flying naked and hungry, but, hey, at least we’d be safe. We have not reached that nadir, not yet, but it seems more credible than ever.
I once had a professor who sagely observed that perfect security exists only in the grave and maximum-security prisons, and we wouldn’t want to live in either. The American response to threats as exemplified in the recent dispute over what to do about possible laptop bombs highlights that dilemma. Americans demand safety, and the US government responds by trying to prevent any incident even as the related costs escalate. The EU, which has confronted many more attacks in recent years, no more tolerates those threats, but its officials—and to a large extent its citizens—more intuitively grasp that trade-offs matters and that not all threats demand drastic response. The laptop ban is not a world-changing issue, but the radically different responses from the United States and the European Union demonstrate that the US has not found a balance that allows a more holistic understanding of threats and costs. And without that balance, we will continue to overreact to threats and underestimate the costs, made no safer in the process but paying the price nonetheless.