Killing Us Softly

TCS Daily

August 11, 2006

The news that Scotland Yard managed to foil a terrorist attack that would have conceivably dwarfed the 9/11 attacks is not quite as good it might first appear. Certainly, the prevention of “mass murder on an unimaginable scale” is something for which we can be tremendously thankful. Still, our reaction to it has already furthered the terrorists’ aims.

The 9/11 attacks directly killed over 3000 people and destroyed billions of dollars worth of property. Naval Postgraduate School political economist Robert Looney recounts the damages:

“Lower Manhattan lost approximately 30 percent of its office space and a number of businesses ceased to exist. Close to 200,000 jobs were destroyed or relocated out of New York City, at least temporarily. The destruction of physical assets was estimated in the national accounts to amount to $14 billion for private businesses, $1.5 billion for state and local government enterprises and $0.7 billion for federal enterprises. Rescue, cleanup and related costs have been estimated to amount to at least $11 billion for a total direct cost of $27.2 billion.”

Indirectly, however, the cost was exponentially higher. The intermediate-term cost in lost flights would likely have crippled an already-reeling airline industry without multi-million dollar government bailouts. The cost in retrofitting planes with hijack-proof cockpit doors, new baggage inspection regimes, employee background checks, and the like have imposed enormous additional costs. (The industry claims that the doors alone cost $300 million.) That’s to say nothing of the tens of billions of dollars in taxpayer money spent ramping up a Department of Homeland Security, taking over airline inspections, and innumerable other actions taken on part of the government to provide at least the illusion of increased safety. Or the hundreds of billions in additional defense spending on the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere.

Given how tremendously wealthy the United States and other Western nations are, however, the most significant cost has been in diminished freedom. I’m not referring so much to debatable counter-terrorism measures like the Patriot Act, increased electronic surveillance on our telephone conversations, and the like. The effect on our liberty of those things is largely theoretical and arguably contributes to the ability of intelligence agencies to foil attacks like the one revealed overnight. No, I’m more concerned about perhaps trivial but much more palpably maddening things like having to arrive two hours early at the airport so that we might stand in long lines to await the indignity of plainly silly searches of our footwear because one idiot tried unsuccessfully to blow up a plane with his sneakers.

Because the latest would-be mass murderers were planning to smuggle liquid explosives aboard in their hand luggage, we will, at least temporarily, no longer be permitted to bring liquids aboard the plane. Indeed, the British are limiting carry-on luggage to a wallet, passport, and medication. Americans are also being advised to add an additional hour to our already early arrival times. While perfectly prudent as counter-terrorism measures, they are horrendous as a business practice for a commercial carrier.

Flying by plane is bad enough owing to decisions by the industry to cram us into ever-smaller planes and existing security measures have ended the days when it made sense to take a plane from, for example, Chattanooga or Montgomery to Atlanta. Pre-9/11, my rule was that a five-hour one-way drive made flying preferable if the rates were low enough and my stay short enough. I’ve since revised that to seven hours. The inability to take carry-on luggage probably bumps it to nine.

While perhaps grumpier than the average citizen, I am hardly alone in this. Wisconsin blogger Sean Hackbarth observes, “The no carry-on restriction and liquid ban better be temporary, or else the airlines will be hurt. One reason some people own a notebook computer is to get work done while in the air. Forcing computers and mobile phones to be stowed in the belly of a plane will have many business travelers saying, ‘Air travel is too much of a hassle; I’m going to teleconference.’ And that might be just what the Islamists want.”

As Hackbarth notes, Amtrack is hardly a viable alternative. Author and business consultant Aaron Brazell suggests another: “The internet provides a vast array of tools for virtual collaboration and though face to face meetings are often nice and useful, they can be replaced by virtual collaborative tools.” He enumerates several alternatives. Of course, terrorists and others can employ denial of service attacks and other means of cyber-terrorism to combat these countermeasures. Still, that risk pales in comparison to blown-up aircraft or even being stranded for hours at an airport.

Of course, this is small comfort to the airline industry. Barring a decision that slightly increased risk of successful terrorist attacks on passengers is a worthwhile trade-off for markedly increased passenger convenience (which is unlikely for public relations, tort liability, and regulatory reasons) the carriers will have ever-increasing difficulty attracting passengers. Given that the business model of selling seats for less than it costs to fly the plane and trying to make up for it in volume has been so unsuccessful, that may be just as well. Perhaps there will be a return to the old paradigm where flying is mostly reserved to business, cross-country, and international travelers. Or maybe a technological solution will be found to make security checks fast and effective.

Regardless, the terrorists are having a major impact on our society. There have been enough successful attacks (9/11, London, and Madrid to name the most obvious) that each foiled attack still heightens the public fear level, causing a predictable government overreaction. Today’s news will certainly cost us a little more freedom and a lot more treasure.

It became a standing joke in the months after 9/11 attacks that, if we did not continue some trivial activity, “Then the terrorists have won.” Sadly, it’s no joke.