In the coming days, millions of Americans will travel to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday with family and friends. May I pose a novel idea? As we go through the airport screening line, let’s stop and say “thanks” to the men and women of the TSA who give up time with their families during the holidays to keep us safe from terror.
In the past few weeks, these patriots have been compared with Big Brother and accused of sexual assault. They’ve suffered the same kinds of public indignities the Left has heaped on the men and women of the CIA — being accused of engaging un-American and unlawful behavior for doing the difficult and unpleasant work of protecting the country. They deserve better.
Can any of us imagine the debate we’ve had in recent weeks unfolding in the days immediately following Sept. 11, 2001? Would any of us have objected to the deployment of millimeter-wave scanners had the technology been available then? The current uproar could happen only in a country that has begun to forget the horror of 9/11. Indeed, it appears many in the country have forgotten. A new Washington Post–ABC News poll found that 66 percent of Americans say that “the risk of terrorism on airplanes is not that great.” Sixty-six percent.
This just four years after al-Qaeda nearly succeeded in blowing up seven transatlantic flights departing London’s Heathrow Airport — with more than 1,500 passengers on board — headed for New York, Washington, Chicago, Montreal, Toronto, and San Francisco. This just eleven months after an al-Qaeda operative succeeded in sneaking a bomb onto a plane in his underwear and nearly blew it up over the city of Detroit. This just weeks after al-Qaeda succeeded in getting two package bombs on board aircraft — including passenger planes — that were designed to blow up over the Eastern seaboard of the United States. If we have learned anything about al-Qaeda in the years since 9/11, it is that they are obsessively focused on destroying planes.
If a passenger who is supposed to be seated near us on our next flight has a bomb in his underwear, I suspect most of us would prefer that the explosive be uncovered when he tries to get through airport security — not when a Dutch tourist sees the passenger in the row ahead of him try to set it off and dives across the plane to stop him, as happened on a flight to Detroit last Christmas.
In the last two weeks, I have been through TSA screening eight times — and not once was I asked to go through the millimeter-wave machine, or undergo an enhanced pat-down. Odds are that most of the 2.2 million passengers who will go through airport security each day during this holiday weekend will have a similar experience. On the last leg of my trip, I finally asked to go through both procedures to see what all the fuss was about. No one touched my junk.
Some critics have argued that the terrorists are more likely to attack us in other ways that can’t be stopped by the new screening procedures. That is the same argument the Left uses against Ballistic Missile Defense. They say our enemies more likely to attack us with suitcase nuke that has no fingerprints than with a ballistic missile that has a return address. Well, just because we face the danger of suitcase bombs does not mean that we should not defend against the danger of ballistic-missile attacks. If a burglar wants to break into our homes, we all know he can bust through the window — but that does not mean we leave our front doors unlocked when we go to bed at night.
The same logic applies to airport screening. Yes, the terrorists can try to sneak explosives on board in other ways (such as hiding them in body cavities). But if we stop screening for the methods they have attempted to use in the past — shoe bombs, liquid explosives hidden in sports drinks, and, yes, underwear bombs — we would be inviting them to use those methods again. Remember the outrage we all felt last Christmas that a terrorist managed to get through airport security with a bomb in his underwear? Well, imagine the outrage we would feel if it happened again because the TSA failed to deploy readily available technology that had a high likelihood of uncovering such a bomb — especially if the terrorist succeeded in blowing up the plane this time.
Some say it is ridiculous to apply screening procedures to children and the elderly. But we know that the terrorists have strapped bombs onto children and used them to get past our security in places like Iraq. Think they would hesitate to do the same here in America? If we announce that children and older travelers are exempt from screening, the terrorists will use children and older travelers to get bombs onto planes.
Some argue that the enhanced screening is a violation of our Fourth Amendment rights. No, it is not. Unlike buying health insurance, buying a plane ticket is still a purely voluntary activity in this country. We all agree to submit to screening when we decide to travel by plane. If we don’t want to go through the electronic screening, we can choose to have a pat-down instead. And if we prefer neither, we can drive, take a bus, or travel train. No American is forced through the enhanced screening procedures against his or her will.
Some say we should use profiling instead. Profiling should absolutely be a key part of our layered defenses against terrorist attack. But profiling alone is insufficient, and is not as easy as it may seem. Just as the terrorists adapt their tactics to get around our screening procedures, they will adapt to get around profiling. We know this because Khalid Shiekh Mohammed told us so. As I recount in my book, Courting Disaster, after KSM was captured and questioned by the CIA, he told the agency that after the 9/11 attacks he assumed we would be profiling for Arab men — so he recruited a cell of Southeast Asian terrorists to carry out the “second wave” of attacks. This cell — known as the Ghuraba cell — included trained pilots and suicide operatives who had met with Osama bin Laden and pledged to carry out martyrdom missions for him. They were captured hiding out in Karachi, Pakistan, awaiting instructions from the al-Qaeda leadership. Their mission was to fly an airplane into the Library Tower in Los Angeles.
When al-Qaeda deployed an operative to blow up a plane over Detroit, they did not send an Arab man — they sent a Nigerian. The terror ground al-Shabab — al-Qaeda’s new affiliate in East Africa — has recruited more than 20 American citizens as foreign fighters. Most are of Somali descent. One — Zachary Adam Chesser — is a white kid from Oakton, Va., who converted to Islam and is now serving a prison sentence for trying to join al-Shabab as a foreign fighter. Al-Qaeda recruits suicide bombers from all over the world — including right here in the U.S. It is not a simple matter to profile against such a diverse array of threats. Profiling is essential, but it is not a replacement for effective airport security.
We need to be crystal clear: As we gather with our families to carve the Thanksgiving turkey, the terrorists are gathering as well — in caves in Waziristan, Yemen, East Africa, and other fronts in the War on Terror — to plan the next attack. The tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks is less than a year away. Al-Qaeda planned to mark the fifth anniversary by blowing up seven planes headed to North America (which is why liquids in carry-on luggage are now required to be in containers no bigger than 3.4 ounces). They may very well be planning something equally spectacular for the tenth anniversary. So when we stop to give thanks for all our blessings this weekend, let’s give thanks for the people who spend their days and nights working to stop the terrorists from succeeding — including the men and women of the TSA.
If you travel by plane this holiday weekend, you’ll have a chance to do so in person.