There has been a lot of interesting reaction to my (and others’) criticism of Anne Jacobsen’s story of terror on flight 327. I want to take a moment to set out what the critics seem to be saying (or what issues they are focusing on) and make sure that my replies are clear. I think that this opens a window into the central issues that will be facing us in the next year or so, politically and in terms of securing ourselves against the real threats of terrorism, so it’s worth taking some time and having a serious talk.
So let’s go through the issues.
First, and foremost, the general tenor of “We’re at war, dammit! The old rules of civility and political correctness are out!”
Um, actually, no we’re not.
Other than in Iraq and Afghanistan, we’re in an armed conflict which we’re trying hard to win without turning it into a war, for the simple reason that as soon as it becomes a real war all kinds of really bad things will happen – to us as well as to the objects of our hostility. I’ll suggest going back to the founding 4th generation war document:
In broad terms, fourth generation warfare seems likely to be widely dispersed and largely undefined; the distinction between war and peace will be blurred to the vanishing point. It will be nonlinear, possibly to the point of having no definable battlefields or fronts. The distinction between “civilian” and “military” may disappear. Actions will occur concurrently throughout all participants’ depth, including their society as a cultural, not just a physical, entity.
We need to figure out how to live in a society where this is the case. And there’s a subtle conflict here – because winning the cultural conflict in which our openness and freedom are the powerful tools conflicts with the secrecy and control that are needed to face some of the military (or terroristic) threats.
This is, as the 9/11 commission correctly pointed out, a war where our values are as important as our weapons; we have to win on both fronts.
Second, visas and border control. There are conflicting reports over whether the Syrians overstayed their visas or not. There’s a series of questions about whether they should have been granted visas in the first place. I don’t think we’re nearly at a point yet where we’ll lock our borders to Arabs, and where we’ll start ‘processing’ Arab immigrants. There are, obviously a number of levels of action between doing nothing and that, and while I think a certain amount of TLC should be given to visitors from obvious states (Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt as well as the gimmes of Iraq and Afghanistan), the problem is that we have limited resources and attention, and we have to choose where to spend it. When we devote total attention to tracking the whereabouts of visitors from one of those countries, we have less attention to spend on visitors from Indonesia, the Philippines, Sudan, etc. etc. And further, that by building impenetrable walls – or walls so high that no one bothers to come through them – we risk losing the other half of the war, the war of ideas.
Third, the issues of airport security. There’s a great scene in ‘Parenthood’ where a mother is looking at photos her teenage daughter has taken of herself having sex with her boyfriend. “There are just so many things wrong with this…” she says. I say that pretty much every time I fly. Airport security is just bad, and it’s frustrating to me that this is the case. Clearly, if what Patterico and other claim – that there is a de fact or de jure regulation prohibiting searching more then X Arab-appearing passengers, it’s idiocy. But it’s a small idiocy that’s a part of a much larger one we’re all living with today; and the question I’ll ask is how we will decide our priorities as we set out fixing our idiocies.
I believe that the core defense against hijacking today is a) that it’s fairly hard to get weapons or bombs onto planes (as it was pre-9/11); and b) passengers aren’t going to let anyone hijack a plane.
Or at least I believed that until I read Anne Jacobsens’ story (more on that in a bit).
So in terms of the two of the broad issues raised by Anne Jacobsen’s story (visa control and passenger screening) we’ve got three points to make:
1) it’s not clear what the visa status of the musicians was, and it’s far from clear that it matters. Fixing our systems so that no one overstayed a visa – or that no Arab overstayed a visa would be difficult if not impossible, and I’m unclear on the value that we’d receive.
2) it’s also not clear whether they went through secondary screening, and what advantage going through secondary screening really brings. Again, I’m so mental about what I perceive as the weakness of airport security that I want to get started…but in this specific case, let’s ask the question – how does Jacobsen or anyone else know what screening they went through when they entered the sterile area? It appears that they weren’t re-screened when they boarded the plane, but that’s a procedure of such limited usefulness (they took a kitchen knife from the restaurant!) that I can’t get exercised about it.
3) their behavior on the plane – wandering around, congregating – is exactly the behavior I’ve engaged in when traveling in groups and I’ve seen dozens of times while traveling. I won’t even get to the ‘Muslim prayer’ issues. Now I wasn’t there, and I’m judging what happened based on what she wrote – but the breathless prose and self-acknowledged terror make her an unreliable narrator at best.
So do I think we ought to do a closer scan on visitors and immigrants from threatening places? Hmmm. Maybe. A lot depends on what it will cost – what other measures won’t be done, and how it will effect our ability to ‘sell’ our society effectively. The problem is that – like the attacks themselves on 9/11 – it isn’t failures in our procedures that worry me, but failures in our doctrines.
Do I think that we ought to automatically do secondary searches on Arab men? No. And I don’t say that because I have dark skin and could be mistaken for an Arab. I’m not worried about their feelings; I’m worried that the resources it will take to do this are resources that we ought to be using more intelligently, rather than blindly. I’d rather that airport personnel took an extra minute with each passenger to do an Israeli-style interview than that we picked 2% of the passenger stream out, stripped them naked and ran fiber-optic probes into every orifice. Mainly because it might be the wrong 2%, and secondarily because (as above) we need to win the battle of ideas and we won’t do that once we indiscriminately treat every Arab as a proto-hijacker.
One of the things about the article that most set me off was her tone. I have a long history of taking bloggers and other people to task for this, because I believe, above all, that attitude and mindset drive performance.
And what does her mindset show?
She was scared in the beginning, got more scared in the middle, and was scared at the end. In between, the only thing she did to ensure her and her family’s safety was to share her alarm with the cabin crew.
What I would have looked for was some determination, some planning, some measure of critical thinking. And I didn’t see any of that…
We’ll win this thing with determination, planning, and critical thinking. When someone finds those in Anne Jacobsen’s work, let me know.