Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Non-Terror Attack that Wasn't

Two Yemeni men living in the United States were arrested yesterday in Amsterdam after flying there from Chicago.  Initial reports indicated that the men were under suspicion for carrying out a "dry run" of a terrorist attack.  The news reports this morning said that one of the men had been stopped in Alabama by TSA officers and found to be carrying $7,000 in cash.  When his checked luggage was searched, officers found a cell phone taped to a Pepto-Bismol bottle, several watches taped together, and knives and a box-cutter.  Since none of that is prohibited, he was allowed to travel to Chicago.  Instead of continuing on to Washington as planned, however, he booked a flight to Amsterdam.  The other suspect did the same.  The suspicious luggage continued on to Washington and was checked through to the United Arab Emirates.  Authorities returned the flight out of New York to the gate and removed the luggage, and alerted authorities in the Netherlands.

American authorities now suggest that, in fact, this was all a big misunderstanding.  The two men did not know each other.  They both missed the flight to Washington and were rebooked by the airline through Amsterdam.  Passengers traveling to foreign countries, particularly third world countries, frequently carry cash for relatives and friends, and they frequently tape valuables into bundles or to large objects to make them harder to steal. 

In between the first version of this story and the second one, news organizations seemed to have every expert (real or imagined) on airline security commenting on this incident.  The consensus seemed to be that everything that could have been done wrong was.  People suspected of terrorism were allowed to fly and allowed to be separated from their luggage.  Imagine what could have gone wrong!!

First of all, I hate this line of reasoning.  Boiled down to its bare bones, what these folks are saying is that the conclusive proof that we can't stop something bad from happening is that something that was judged not to be imminently dangerous was, in fact, not imminently dangerous.  If that's true, what would be the conclusive proof that we can stop something bad from happening?

I actually have an easier time imagining what could have gone right in this situation, had this been handled differently.  I don't know enough to know whether arresting these men was the right or the reasonable thing to do.  However, it seems to me that if it took less than 12 hours to go from being sure they were evil to thinking it was all a coincidence, then maybe they could have waited 12 hours to go public with the information in the first place.

You may remember that I'm generally not a fan of sitting on information in a crisis.  Withholding information from anxious people is almost universally a bad idea, because it makes them more anxious.  In this instance, however, it's not clear to me that anyone would have been anxious if they hadn't released the information when they did.  If there was a leak, and the preliminary information would have gotten out anyway, then certainly the authorities were right to talk about it.  But they missed the opportunity to, instead of saying that they thought this was a dry run for a terror attack, say that they were still investigating and they'd get back to us.

Crisis communication shouldn't be this hard.  Tell what you know.  Don't speculate.  Stick to the facts.  Acknowledge the anxiety.  Make it clear that more information will be forthcoming.  Then stop talking.  It's common sense, really.  Unfortunately, it's not so common.


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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 www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
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