Monday, August 14, 2006

The Job I'm Glad I Don't Have

Channeling Michael Chertoff is not the way I prefer to pass time in the shower, but sometimes it just happens.

I was thinking of him standing there at his presser, detailing the new security rules that don't ban all liquids but allow up to four ounces of nonprescription meds, solid lipstick, and gel-based diabetic supplies, and imaginging what maybe he would like to say, were he able to shed his bureaucratic flunky shell and be nakedly honest for a few minutes:

Hello, my name is Michael Chertoff. Please make sure your cameras are powered up, your satellite feeds clean, and your pencils sharp, because I am about to commit political suicide and I'm only going to say this once.

The TSA is taking away your toothpaste, shampoo, and Chanel No. 5 because we have to do something to make it look like we're on top of things. We hope that if you're stuck in line for five hours waiting to pour your Diet Coke into an official trash can with all the other liquids, gels, soft solids, and random goos we can strip from your fellow travelers, you'll be too exhausted and frazzled to think about the thousands of pounds of cargo riding in the belly of the jet under your feet.

Because we don't look at that stuff. We don't have the funding or personnel, and if you think a GOP-controlled Congress will mandate security measures the airlines have to pay for themselves, well, you're wrong. So we put on our dog-and-pony show at the security gate with a handful of underpaid, undertrained workers and hope that makes you feel safe enough that you won't ask the hard questions.

The simple fact, ladies and gents, is that the potential for terrorist attacks is this big, with "this big" representing roughly the size of the universe.

And what we're able to do to ameliorate that is about this big on a good day. This "this big" is actual size.

The country's just too damn big and technology allows nefarious devices to be ever smaller, more concealable. Communication is instant. Very destructive materials can be packaged in very small delivery systems. If al Qaeda or my crazy Uncle Joe want to blow ten airliners out of the air simultaneously, they can do it and there's not a damn thing the US government can do to stop them.

The only impediment, really, is the incompetence of the foot soldiers they send out to do the job. Will somebody get nervous and blow his cover, or panic and back out at the last second? That's about the best we can hope for. Richard Reid can't quite get his sneaker lit, so the TSA makes everyone send their shoes through the X-ray machine. The Brits find a ring of guys trying to get their liquid explosives straightened out and the TSA bans lip gloss. Does this make you any more than marginally safer? No. It doesn't.

The point is that it doesn't matter what we find out about and add to the list of hoops you have to jump through before getting on a plane. There are always other ways, other things we just haven't thought of yet and won't until somebody tries them. We could, as so many people have groused, simply strip you all naked and have you ride in cages. That wouldn't do a damn thing to keep a Semtex-stuffed teddy bear wired to a timer sitting inside an iPod shell in checked baggage or undisguised Semtex in an air cargo crate from blowing the 6:15 to Cleveland right out of the sky. It won't do a damn thing to keep the uninspected suitcases on the Sunset Limited (read: all of them) from detonating as the train chugs past the munitions depot in Yuma or pulls into downtown LA. It won't do jack to stop coordinated hits in small towns throughout the Midwest--you know, away from any targets of tactical value, but right in the heart of what you thought were the last safe spots in America.

We can't do shit. We can, at best, protect you from the really stupid or incompetent terrorists who can't think outside the traditional knife-to-the-throat box of airplane hijackings. So we make you traipse through the security gate barefoot and dry to assuage your fears with the veneer of Doing Something, and hope that the majority of you will think that's great and continue to consider Republicans the Party of Strong on Terror.

You want consolation? Here's your consolation. In a nation of 300 million people, your odds of survival are pretty good. Thank you and have a nice day.

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