In his year-end column, New York Times columnist and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman coins the first decade of the 21st Century “the Big Zero.” He points out that, economically, the United States has ended the decade exactly where it started. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is still hovering around 10,000, residential real estate prices after a huge bubble expansion and “Pop!” of equal magnitude have dropped back to about where they were 10 years ago. There has been no job creation and median household income, adjusted for inflation, are about the same as they were in 1999.
Despite spending tens of billions of taxpayer dollars to beef up airline security in the wake of the 9/11/2001 terrorists attacks, we now know that progress in securing air travel has also been a big zero. On Christmas Day, a terrorist got onto a plane bound for the USA with 80 grams of the high explosive PETN that he attempted to detonate as the plane made its final approach into Detroit Wayne County Airport. This guy raised more red flags than a Chinese May Day Parade. His father reported him to the US Embassy in Nigeria as an extremist who had gone missing (with the presumption that he had gone to train as a terrorist). The ticket was purchased with cash (according to The New York Times). If these things had been put together (the latter, of course, should have been easily flagged and prompted someone to pull this guy aside, pat him down, and ask him some tough questions), in other words, if the various government agencies had communicated with each other and shared information, the entire incident could have been avoided. The guy probably would have been detained, found to have explosives, and arrested. But we now know that the agencies, just as they did prior to 9/11, didn’t collaborate. They kept their information in their own narrow silos, reverting to the bureaucratic parochialism that we have spent billions upon billions in vain to change. Apparently, nothing has changed. What will it take to overcome the government agency turf battles that endanger the American people?
Back in 2005, noted security expert Bruce Schneier wrote:
Exactly two things have made airline travel safer since 9/11: reinforcement of cockpit doors, and passengers who now know that they may have to fight back. Everything else — Secure Flight and Trusted Traveler included — is security theater. We would all be a lot safer if, instead, we implemented enhanced baggage security — both ensuring that a passenger’s bags don’t fly unless he does, and explosives screening for all baggage — as well as background checks and increased screening for airport employees.
As we saw on Christmas Day, it was Schneier’s second point, that passengers now know that they may have to fight back, that thwarted the detonation of the explosives on flight 253. Passengers jumped on the Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab as he was attempting to set off his explosives. It wasn’t “the system” that “worked” (as Homeland Security Secretary Janet Nopalitano dubiously claimed). It was regular people willing to sacrifice their safety and their lives to save the other passengers and crew that worked and that is not a government program.
Hopefully President Obama will heed Schneier’s advice and spend federal tax dollars on programs that will actually prevent terrorist attacks.