Sunday, December 27, 2009

Reacting and Overreacting to the Detroit Plane Incident

In the wake of Friday's apparent attempted terrorist attack on Northwest Flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit, the government has done a lot of things.  Today, the President ordered a review of airline security.  International travelers are reportedly being subjected to additional screenings.  Passengers have to remain seated, at least on some flights, for the last hour before landing, without accessing their carry-on bags and without any personal items on their laps.  Airlines are now prohibited from announcing anything about the flight path, the plane's location, or landmarks they are passing.  Lines are long at airports, and everyone is being told to expect delays.

We've been down this road before, and what will come next is a discussion of whether this is a measured reaction or an overreaction.  It might be useful if we had a common understanding of what constitutes an acceptable reaction and what represents an unacceptable overreaction.  I'd like to propose a set of definitions that is based, generally, on the boundaries of "normal" stress reactions.  An acceptable reaction, then, is one that we would say is typical or normal following a trauma, given all the factors and the amount of time that has passed.  An overreaction is one that, if we saw it in an individual following a critical incident, would make us think the person is probably a candidate for further care.

For individuals, following a trauma, it is very natural to feel defensive and protective.  Something awful has happened, and our understanding of how the world works has been thrown into question.  Things we thought were safe are now suspect, and danger is everywhere.  In the few days or weeks following an incident, it would be well within the range of typical responses for someone to not want to be exposed to things that remind them of what happened.  The particular location feels unsafe, as do other things directly connected such as a car if the incident was a car accident, or a knife if there was one involved. 

Over time, this avoidance shifts from being an absolute rule to a preference, to something that is in the back of the person's mind but not getting in the way of functioning.  Where this process ends will depend on how well the person is recovering and also on the facts of the situation.  If doing something differently or avoiding a certain place or thing was actually a mistake in the first place, then that lesson has been learned.  Someone who refuses to drive without their seatbelt on after a horrific accident isn't failing to recover, they're updating their knowledge.

Some of the new restrictions and rules for airline security seem to fall into the category of what people do immediately following an incident.  Having people remain seated for the last hour with nothing on their laps is a restriction that is specific to the attempted attack that happened on Friday.  There is nothing magical about these rules that will prevent a zillion other things that someone might plan to do on a plane -- they will only stop someone who is mixing explosives in the lavatory or under a blanket at their seat, and only in the last minutes of a flight. 

So are they an overreaction? If we look at the range of normal reactions after a trauma, I'd say no.  The government, in the immediate wake of this attack, is trying to avoid, and to help us avoid, the elements of the incident that are most directly related.  These restrictions are the moral equivalent of avoiding the intersection where your car accident took place.

But could these restrictions become an overreaction?  Absolutely.  If, as the next few weeks unfold, we gain no new information that indicates there is a particular risk to having people access their luggage an hour before landing (as opposed to any other time), or to letting people curl up under a blanket during approach, then these restrictions move from being an understandable avoidance to a pathological one.  Unless we have some reason to believe that failing to do these things on flight 253 was inherently risky, not just for that one time, then we're not returning to reason in a healthy way.

Which brings us around to the President's order to review airline security.  While the fact that CNN sent this out as a "Breaking News Story" was a little over the top, it is a very important component of this process.  There needs to be an operational review to figure out whether the procedures that are in place were followed and what other procedures may or may not be necessary.  It is this review that should inform the airline security restrictions moving forward, not the knee-jerk response of the day after.  Hopefully, there are at least a few people at the Department of Homeland Security who are enough removed from the panic to make sure that happens.

Frequent Quarterbacker Colleen sends the following article from Homeland Security Watch: "Do I Have the Right to Refuse This Search" It is written by a law enforcement officer and discusses the difference between current TSA procedures and effective criminal detection work. It is well worth your time.


Colleen said...

Naomi, I think you will find this one interesting....

Perhaps homeland security should talk to police and military and other security groups, to see what has worked and not worked, and gather their own data, to find out more!

"And so our stories go..." said...

Interesting thoughts about this problem in our country and around the world. Thank you.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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