Bin Laden’s Revenge

I just returned from a conference.  The guy sitting next to me on the plane had with him a laptop computer, an iPad, an iPod, and a phone.  Yep, four “portable electronic devices.”  I figured the guy was probably a terrorist.  Because they keep announcing it to potential terrorists on aircraft, I know that portable electronic devices can interfere with the aircraft’s navigation system.  And this guy had four of them.

Now that bin Laden has been killed some have conjectured that al Qaeda will initiate some retaliation, and they probably would want to strike quickly.  Targeting aircraft would be difficult because of the heavy security already in place.  For example, someone wanting to bring down an aircraft using toothpaste would have a difficult time because the TSA prohibits carrying toothpaste, except in extremely small quantities, on aircraft.

So, you’d have to think that anyone wanting to initiate a terrorist attack with toothpaste, shampoo, mouthwash, or soft drinks would have a very difficult time getting those dangerous and banned items onto an aircraft.  The big loophole in all this is portable electronic devices which, despite repeated announcements about their danger to aircraft, are still allowed on board.

How hard would it be, for example, for al Qaeda to book a dozen operatives onto a flight, all of whom had four portable electronic devices like my recent seat-mate, and then when below 10,000 feet, to all turn them on at once?  That would be 48 portable electronic devices, which would cripple the aircraft’s navigation system and bring the aircraft down.  Don’t need box cutters.  Don’t need toothpaste.  It can be done with something the TSA routinely lets through checkpoints, even as the flight attendants announce on every flight how dangerous they are.

Skeptical readers will argue that despite these announcements, portable electronic devices pose no threat to aircraft navigation, and perceptive passengers will note that even as the airline crews announce the dangers of these devices on every flight, the airlines have even started selling in-flight internet service (above 10,000 feet), so we can all fire up our portable electronic devices and surf the web rather than focusing on the fact that we are hurling along six miles above the surface of the Earth, where the air is too thin to breathe, at 550 mph in an aluminum cylinder.  Could it be that these devices interfere with aircraft navigation below 10,000 feet, but not in the thinner air above?

Most people don’t question things we’re told to do for our safety.  On one of my flights this trip, a passenger didn’t turn off his portable music player as the aircraft descended and the familiar announcement was made, and was accosted by a fellow passenger who told the offending music listener that his player could “mess up” the aircraft’s navigation system, and that he was endangering our flight.  Meanwhile, for our own safety, we disrobe at TSA checkpoints, and don’t carry dangerous items like mouthwash and shampoo, remaining compliant because most people think this makes us safer.

The damage al Qaeda’s attack caused when it destroyed the World Trade Center was about $10 billion (not including the substantial cost in terms of human life).  Meanwhile, the TSA’s annual budget is $6.3 billion, so we’re spending more than half the cost of the destruction of the World Trade Center every year to protect ourselves from another attack.  Clearly, the bulk of the cost of the September 11, 2001 attack has come in terms of the costs we have incurred since that day, not the cost of the actual destruction from the attack.  That is bin Laden’s revenge.

Part of bin Laden’s revenge comes in the form of the monetary cost, and part comes in the form of our ready acceptance of our loss of liberty.  Our Constitution says, “The right of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated… but upon probable cause…”  Yet everyone who takes an airline flight undergoes such a search, with no probable cause.  The TSA has yet to discover anyone at any checkpoint poised to undertake any terrorist activity.

Yes, there was the financial cost and loss of life, but perhaps a bigger victory, and an on-going one, for bin Laden, is the undermining of our constitutional rights.  I talk with people all the time who tell me they believe our loss of rights is worth it to make flying safer.  They don’t question the nonsensical TSA rules.  We’re training compliant citizens, and those citizens trained to be more compliant to government mandates at TSA checkpoints indirectly are being trained not to question government mandates in all areas of our lives.

No thinking person can believe that preventing people from carrying their own bottled water onto airplanes, or carrying their own toothpaste and shampoo, makes us safer.  Even preventing people from carrying knives on board does not make us safer.  Prior to September 11, 2001, the conventional wisdom on an aircraft hijacking was to quietly comply with the hijacker’s demands so everyone could land safely.  That conventional wisdom disappeared before that day was over, as the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 heard about the other hijackings and overpowered the hijackers.  Passengers will no longer be compliant with hijackers’ demands, and if the passengers had knives, it would enable them to more effectively fight back, as they would do today.

We can debate the wisdom of allowing people to carry knives on board aircraft, but how about deodorant, or shampoo?  Where do we draw the line?  The answer is that we don’t.  We have been intimidated, by bin Laden’s terrorist network and our own federal government, into complying with demands that everyone should recognize as absurd, and a violation of our constitutional rights.

The Constitution always has been a pesky obstacle standing in the way of the government taking away more of our liberties.  Bin Laden’s attacks were aimed directly at the constitutional safeguards that make ours a free country.  Bin Laden is gone, but his revenge is the erosion of our constitutional liberties that will live on.

Randall G. Holcombe is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University. His Independent books include Housing America: Building Out of a Crisis (edited with Benjamin Powell); and Writing Off Ideas: Taxation, Foundations, and Philanthropy in America .
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