The Spectacle Blog

How Seriously Should We Take the Christmas Bomber?

By on 12.28.09 | 9:31AM

At this early stage, in which information we have is relatively limited, it's important to use caution when commenting on the attempted terrorist attack outside of Detroit on Christmas Day, but there are a few issues that the incident does raise.

One question is whether we should be more scared of Al Qaeda (assuming they are somehow linked to the attack) or less scared because the attack was bungled in a fashion worthy of a slapstick comedy? In some circles, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab quickly became known as the "crotch bomber."

My early reaction is that, yes, the bomber was unable to pull it off and elements of the story lend themselves to mockery. But, at the same time it does show that terrorists are still intent on attacking America and they are constantly concocting ways to find holes in our security measures and testing new methods.

The idea of smuggling in a bunch of explosive materials into a plane, assembling a bomb aboard, and blowing it up in a seat of the plane where it could set off a chain of events that would bring down the whole plane, is nothing new. Just read this Washington Post story dated July 21, 1996, titled, "New Devices May Foil Airline Security," which describes a nearly identical scenario. Ramzi Yousef, one of the planners of the first World Trade Center bombing and nephew of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, made a similar attempt onboard Philippine Airlines Flight 434, which was supposed to be a test for a larger attack on more planes. So a botched attempt this Christmas doesn't mean that terrorists won't be able to figure out something that works at some point down the road.

While people have differerent perspectives on how concerned we should be about this attempted attack -- and how big a threat terrorism is in general -- most people seem to be in agreement that the subsequent security measures imposed by the TSA are idiodic. This would be a good time to reevaluate how we think about airline security -- and perhaps discuss emulating the Israeli model. Israel, rather than relying on these silly rules, turns to observation and human intellegence. Security workers ask a number of questions to passengers, and they are trained to pick up on anything suspicious. They also don't take anything for granted, because they assume that anybody could be a potential security threat. In my personal experience, there have been times traveling to Israel when I glided through security rather easily, and other times when I've been questioned extensively by two different security workers. I'd much rather that sort of system than our reactive approach in which one person tries to set off a bomb in his shoe, and so then we have to take off our shoes. Then somebody puts a bomb in his pants, but since we can't have people take off their underwear, we have to make arbitrary rules about when you can go to the bathroom during an international flight.

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