Janet Napolitano is impressed with Janet Napolitano’s work. In an instantly notorious statement on CNN over the weekend, the Homeland Security secretary said “the system worked” when a man boarded a Christmas Day flight from Amsterdam to Detroit with explosives in his underwear that he couldn’t quite manage to ignite.
Does “the system” count on all explosive devices smuggled onto international flights not detonating? When Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab set himself on fire while trying to blow up the plane and kill its 278 passengers, a Dutch filmmaker leapt on him, ripped a smoldering object from near his crotch, and put it out with his bare hands. Or as Napolitano put it, “Everybody played an important role here.”
This is a bizarre division of labor. You carefully pack to avoid any liquids more than three ounces. You stand in a security line. You take off your shoes. You get your fingernail clippers confiscated. You run your carry-on bags through an X-ray machine and walk through a metal detector, with an extra wanding if your spare pocket change sets off the alarm. And after all that, it’s still your responsibility to subdue the terrorist in the next row trying to set off the pentaerythritol tetranitrate (PETN) secreted on his body.
Napolitano immediately took back her praise of “the system,” in a tacit acknowledgment that its only success was in demonstrating its own industrial-scale irrationality. At a cost of $30 billion since 2004, we’ve implemented security procedures ideally suited to harassing innocent passengers who have no intention of doing anyone harm and only want to travel from Point A to Point B with minimal inconvenience. It’s only the terrorists we have trouble handling.
If a terrorist is a proverbial needle in a haystack, Abdulmutallab constituted something closer to a sledgehammer. His father, a powerful banker in Nigeria, warned the U.S. embassy that he might be dangerous. This only got Abdulmutallab entered into the Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment, a massive database that evidently does nothing to enjoin terrorists from traveling to the U.S. on missions of mass murder.
Even by the most basic standard of post-9/11 travel, Abdulmutallab should have set off alarms. He reportedly bought his ticket in cash and only had carry-on luggage. Never mind his travel history that included a trip to Yemen, or the revocation of his visa by the British when they suspected he tried to enter the U.K. on false pretenses. For all this, Abdulmutallab — who maintains he worked with al-Qaeda in Yemen on his plot — got nary an extra pat.
The initial reaction to the incident has been more of the same: beside-the-point inconveniences in the grand airport-security charade. On the latest international flights to the U.S., passengers have been kept from standing up during the last hour and have had to stow all personal items, including books and the airline’s own pillows. What do the new rules say should be done with the PETN?
It’s never going to be easy for a free society to defend itself from furtive enemies, but that doesn’t excuse willful obliviousness. We should move to a more Israel-style security system, devoting more energy to the intelligence and on-the-spot assessments necessary to focus on the greatest potential threats. And we should resist the civil libertarians who create pressure to narrow down the most meaningful watch lists and work to forestall adoption of more effective whole-body imaging scanners.
For its part, the Obama administration should frankly acknowledge that the “War on Terror” wasn’t a Bush-Cheney construct to scare and manipulate the American public. The same Napolitano who initially portrayed the near-miss on Christmas as a vindication did her utmost to avoid even uttering the word “terror” at a congressional hearing earlier this year, preferring the absurd neologism “man-caused disaster.”
That’s a phrase best applied to the shoeless shuffle at the airport-security lines, not the heinous acts of war plotted by Abdulmutallab and his inevitable successors.