1 in 10,408,947
The Botched Boxer Blowup and Ridiculous Response
By Ashley Scott
Illustrator, CMC ’11
Everything in life carries risks. While some might advocate bearing any and all costs to save a life, this argument does not ring true: we all take technically unnecessary risks like driving or drinking alcohol. And even compared to these ordinary risks we undertake on a daily basis, the risk of an air terror attack is extremely small. According to political statistician Nate Silver, the probability of being a terrorism victim on a flight in the United
States is 1 in 10,408,947; being struck by lightning is over 20 times more likely. The key, therefore, is to balance the risk of a particular event with both the effectiveness and the harm that preventative measures realize. In that respect, the response to the failed Christmas Day air terror attack scare is proportionately overblown.
Air travel has become a necessary mode of transportation for many Americans, so the costs of excessively strict and invasive security requirements imposed upon travelers require extensive examination. The addition or expansion of security measures seem to completely disregard costs (of both time and money) and passengers’ sense of privacy. But unlike the risk of being a terror victim, the harm caused by invasive security procedures is tough to quantify.
Full body scanners, which can see the naked body and medical implants in addition to potential weapons, are the most egregiously unreasonable and wasteful. The U.S. plans to triple the number of full body scanners used for airport security in 2010. The scanners’ $150,000 price tag will make air travel even less affordable for lower income people (and poor college students) as costs are passed on to the consumer. Cost aside, these scanners aren’t even that effective; they usually do not display explosives hidden in body cavities. A German talk show aired a demonstration of a scanner failing to show bomb-making components taped to a man’s body. Given these critical flaws, the full body scanners’ benefits justify neither the money nor the infringement upon personal privacy, which most people highly value.
The carry-on luggage restrictions are equally problematic. While basically everyone would agree that it is reasonable to confiscate more dangerous items, such as pocket knives, it is difficult to argue in favor of one’s right to bring liquids through security without confiscation. When TSA officials take a tube of Aquafresh out of a passenger’s carry-on bag, the harm to his or her livelihood is minimal. After all, the passenger has several other options: packing it in checked luggage, bringing a mini tube, or borrowing toothpaste from a friend. Yet the probability of being killed by an exploding tube of toothpaste (or similar substance) used as a terrorist’s weapon of choice is too small to justify the confiscation. Moreover, the difficulty of differentiating between successfully deterring an incident and taking a potentially dangerous item from an innocent person who forgot about it makes determining the effectiveness of these measures impossible.
Although the U.S. should not have granted Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab a visa, the Christmas Day incident was largely out of the TSA’s control. Nonetheless, the TSA has included another new security measure: a watch-list, “designed to be unpredictable.” As a recent New York Times article mentions, the TSA has been under scrutiny because of its watch-listing of eight-year-old Mikey Hicks, who shares a name with another potential offender. In addition, watch-listed people can change their name to remove themselves from the watch list. While unpredictable security measures ostensibly carry the benefit of “surprising” terror suspects, the lack of consistency appears to yield ineffective procedures. It is also difficult to surprise people with the “unpredictable” security measures, since people will sooner than later predict a pattern of the new types of controls they have… unless the controls are truly random, which does not seem effective.
All of these newly implemented security measures are tough for passengers, the airline industry, and the government to justify – especially given the economic recession. The monetary costs and personal embarrassment far outweigh the 1 in 10,408,947 risk that Silver calculated. But unfortunately, it is highly unfeasible for most people to boycott air travel.