Friday, December 25, 2009

Should We Panic About Northwest Flight 253?

The reports are still sketchy, and the details keep changing, but as of this moment it appears that a Nigerian national on board Northwest Airlines flight 253 from Amsterdam to Detroit either set off or tried to set off a small explosive or incendiary device shortly before the plane landed around noon today.  He claims to have been acting on instructions from Al-Qaeda, and the White House has labeled this an attempted terrorist attack.  Reports differ on whether he actually got the thing lighted, but everyone seems to agree that two or three fellow passengers noticed what he was doing and one of them jumped on him.

At moments like this, we are conditioned to panic.  The idea that we should be extremely worried whenever a terrorist plot is uncovered, especially if it becomes operational in any way, has been pushed upon us from any number of sources over the last 8 years.  We are earnestly asked to be aware of our surroundings and report anything suspicious, and told that we may be facing additional security measures.  We are told that the terror alert level is going up, or not (as in today's incident).  Be afraid, be very afraid.

There are any number of things wrong with this picture.  Let's begin with the terror alert level.  What exactly changes when we go, say, from yellow to orange, or from orange to red?  What are we supposed to do differently?  What purpose is served by telling us that it is staying steady, or going up?  Is the fact that it's not going up supposed to mean that nothing has changed?  How does that jibe with the fact that we are told that security may be tightened at the airport? 

Add to this the fact that at least several news outlets reported that the terror alert level was being raised to orange, despite the fact that it has been at orange for airline travel for quite some time.  I wonder if I'm missing something here -- some nuance about the terror alert level that makes this actually a change.  But even if I am, that only reinforces the notion that the use of this scale is not helpful, at least as it's happening now.

More broadly, however, this incident begs the question:  Why, exactly, are we supposed to be afraid?  There are people out there, most relevantly to this event people associated with Al-Qaeda, who want to hurt Americans.  They are inclined to use air travel to do so.  This isn't news.  The only thing that changed today was that we may have actually seen someone try (or have caught someone who is completely unrelated to Al-Qaeda, but is trying to boost his own importance).

The ways we prevent terrorist attacks are multi-layered.  In this instance, the suspect was, by some reports, on the government No Fly list but was allowed to board a plane to the US anyway -- layer #1 failed.  He then managed to get something that burns or explodes and something to light it with onto a plane -- layer #2 failed.  He then tried to detonate it and both caused himself serious burns without seriously injuring anyone else and was immediately detected and subdued by his fellow passengers -- layer #3 succeeded.  What we learned today is that even if the bad guys manage to get on a plane with something they shouldn't have, we are capable of stopping them before they cause a real problem.  We don't need to be told to pay attention to our surroundings -- this incident proves that we already are.

You'll excuse me if I don't join in the panic today.  It seems to me that the new information we have from flight 253 tells us we're safer than we might have thought.


Alan said...

Amen on not panicking. We are in a state of war -- two wars -- and this is to be expected. As my old man says, "When your number's up, your number's up." Nobody gets to live forever -- pre-panicking is wasted effort.

All this proves is: 1) The few terrorists that our enemies can scare up are bumblers with bad equipment, and 2) our fellow Americans have learned to confront threats to safety from other airline passengers with sufficient force. These are good things.

Colleen said...

After 9/11 it was reported that people on the plane didn't rush the terrorists most probably because it had been considered best to deal with hijackers by letting them talk. There were reporters saying that with the knives they had on those flights, hindsight shows much could have been avoided by rushing them, early on.

This is not the first flight since then that passengers have defended themselves.

Security is pretty good, but will never be perfect. But as long as orinary people take care of themsevles and each other, it's mostly ok.

And, yeah, this episode DOES make me feel like we ARE safer than they tell us we are! Passengers count towards safety, too.

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