Monday, December 28, 2009

Preventative Security: What are we Trying to Prevent?

Whether or not we have learned anything from the alleged terrorist attack on the Delta/Northwest airplane preparing to land in Detroit this past Friday at the end of its flight from Amsterdam, it is clear that "homeland security" has once again recovered pride of place in our daily discourse. These are the times when I turn to Al Jazeera English in the hope of finding language that is relatively free of bias, even when it is not yet clear just what the objective facts are. One of their most recent reports on Friday's incident provides a good example of such language:

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, a 23-year-old Nigerian, is accused of trying to detonate explosives attached to his body as the plane began its descent into Detroit on Christmas Day.

That is straightforward enough. The problem is that things start to get messy when everyone (particularly in the media) become obsessed with one question: How could this have been prevented? In this respect the reaction of our President has not been much different:

Barack Obama, the US president, has ordered a review of air security wanting to know how a man carrying explosives had managed to board a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

Apparently, part of the problem had to do with how difficult it would be to detect the explosive involved in this incident. However, is this strictly a question of detecting explosives? It would appear that the more pressing issue involves a vague concept of "undesirables" who should be kept off of all public airline flights. To some extent it would appear that, as our friends at Apple like to say, "There's an app for that;" or, more specifically, there is a hierarchy of databases:

According to US officials Abdulmutallab, the son of a prominent Nigerian family, was named on the US Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment (TIDE) security watch list, a document which includes about 550,000 people.

However, the Nigerian was not on the smaller Terrorist Screening Data Base (TSDB) and was not flagged for mandatory extra airport security screening or included on the "no fly" list.

These two tiers demonstrate the problem: One filter is too coarse, and the other is too fine.

Part of the problem is that there are no good criteria for effectively detecting and filtering out "undesirables." To offer a reductio ad absurdum, is there anything "undesirable" about a man who wants to bring a copy of the Koran as reading matter during the flight? Hopefully, the general consensus will be that there is not; but what if this man is sitting next to a strong-willed right-wing ideologue with a tendency to drink too much, leading to undue aggressive behavior, verbal or worse? Are we to exclude someone as a "potential provocateur;" or are we to exclude someone who is too easily provoked? Remember, I used the word "absurdum;" but exaggerated examples often best demonstrate the underlying problems.

This takes me to a theme I have developed in the past: Bad things happen, and there is no way to prevent all of them. Here is the way I put the matter in October:

In the wake of 9/11, we were confronted with an obsession with what I have called "preventative security," giving little thought to whether or not this was a realistic goal. In December of 2007, I wrote about a book entitled The Edge of Disaster by Stephen Flynn, whose fundamental proposition was that resiliency is more important than preventative security.

Resiliency is not a matter of building better databases with better filters. It is a far more nebulous matter concerned with how we all behave when faced with a difficult (or even potentially difficult) situation. The problem is less whether or not our Government can make us feel more secure and more a matter that our behavioral dispositions are constantly being warped, not only by the ways in which the media report the news to us but also by all the fantasy worlds of "action heroes" that we encounter in the movies and on television. In other words our greatest vulnerability is the loss of our "sense of reality," a loss that has been induced by the very media that we assume are informing us but are actually mucking with the very consciousness that, by all rights, should make us functioning human beings.

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