Six years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, airport security remains a theater of the absurd. The changes put in place following the September 11th catastrophe have been drastic, and largely of two kinds: those practical and effective, and those irrational, wasteful and pointless.
The first variety have taken place almost entirely behind the scenes. Explosives scanning for checked luggage, for instance, was long overdue and is perhaps the most welcome addition. Unfortunately, at concourse checkpoints all across America, the madness of passenger screening continues in plain view. It began with pat-downs and the senseless confiscation of pointy objects. Then came the mandatory shoe removal, followed in the summer of 2006 by the prohibition of liquids and gels. We can only imagine what is next.
To understand what makes these measures so absurd, we first need to revisit the morning of September 11th, and grasp exactly what it was the 19 hijackers so easily took advantage of. Conventional wisdom says the terrorists exploited a weakness in airport security by smuggling aboard box-cutters. What they actually exploited was a weakness in our mindset â€” a set of presumptions based on the decades-long track record of hijackings.
In years past, a takeover meant hostage negotiations and standoffs; crews were trained in the concept of â€œpassive resistance.â€ All of that changed forever the instant American Airlines Flight 11 collided with the north tower. What weapons the 19 men possessed mattered little; the success of their plan relied fundamentally on the element of surprise. And in this respect, their scheme was all but guaranteed not to fail.
For several reasons â€” particularly the awareness of passengers and crew â€” just the opposite is true today. Any hijacker would face a planeload of angry and frightened people ready to fight back. Say what you want of terrorists, they cannot afford to waste time and resources on schemes with a high probability of failure. And thus the September 11th template is all but useless to potential hijackers.