Stop Punishing Fliers

The swiftness with which our culture has made light of the “jock-strap jihadist” shows our resilience. But the government’s reaction—more inconveniences on travelers instead of an expanded no-fly list—is all wrong.

The swiftness with which our culture has made light of the “jock-strap jihadist” shows our resilience. But the government’s reaction—more inconveniences on travelers instead of an expanded no-fly list—is all wrong. And why is there no TSA head, a year into the Obama administration?

There has been enough alarmed commentary already on the havoc that would have ensued had Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab detonated more expertly the bespoke undergarment tailored for him in Yemen. That is par for these dangerous times, and fitting.

A more telling commentary on our state of mind—a commentary, in truth, on the extent to which we have become inured to threats of terrorism—is the swiftness with which our popular culture has made light of the episode. “ Fruit of the Loon,” blared the front page of the New York Daily News, in a play on the name of an underwear brand (owned, it turns out, by Warren Buffett). Twitter and Facebook chat has dwelt on how the inconvenient anatomical location of the bomber’s burns would make his eventual tryst with 72 virgins a forlorn affair. People are asking when the last time it was that a Dutchman tackled a Nigerian outside a soccer field, and making quips about an Islamist “boxer rebellion,” a terrorist “brotherhood of the traveling pants,” a “jock-strap jihad,” and a “new Y-front in the war on terror.”

It is clear that with the Nigerian undie bomber and Richard Reid before him that al Qaeda is resorting to men with less training and competence, perhaps even with less murderous nihilism.

This is heartening, as it suggests that our society—so humorless and fractious in its squabbles over health care, say, or taxes—has reserves of resilience and verve when it comes to facing down an external foe. But what are we to make, now, of this foe, this amorphous Islamist foe, this elusive, relentless al Qaeda?

Al Qaeda shook us to our foundations on Sept. 11, 2001—bringing calamity without compare to our shores, and a cause for a war on terror that has shown no sign of ending. It did so with jet planes, pulling off a coup de theatre it has never since repeated or matched on the American homeland. Having succeeded on 9/11 to an extent that was beyond its wildest expectations, it has become wedded to the airplane as its forum of destruction, as the stage on which to make its statement—and wedded also to the belief that for a statement to be worthwhile, it must be spectacular, homeland terrorism as a son et lumière show.

Clive Irving: The Bomb Threat Under the SeatsHoward Altman: Al Qaeda’s Flight 253 BlueprintGerald Posner: Missed Warning SignsHence the resort to planes, again and again. And yet it is clear that with the Nigerian undie bomber, Abdulmutallab (and with the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, before him, and with the plot to bring on board liquid explosives that was foiled by the British), that al Qaeda is resorting to lower-level personnel, to men with less training and competence, perhaps even with less murderous nihilism, than the Mohammad Attas and Hani Hanjours of 9/11. If that is so—and the facts on their face indicate that it might be—we can derive some consolation. If Abdulmutallab is the best that al Qaeda can do, should one not wonder whether al Qaeda is still the potent transnational force of yore?

Should one not wonder, also, why Abdulmutallab didn’t ignite his device in the toilet, where no one could have tackled him and stripped him of his weapon? Trying to set fire to something in front of others is not efficient procedure. This was either bad planning on al Qaeda’s part, or a loss of nerve on Abdulmutallab’s. Or maybe there’s another explanation: Perhaps an event in the toilet was not a public enough incident, not manifestly enough a terrorist act to make headlines: not, in sum, spectacular. If so, it may well be that al Qaeda’s obsession with grand theater works to our advantage.

Of course, there has been a homeland reaction. The Transportation Security Administration went predictably into Pavlovian overdrive, announcing a series of new security measures that would take immediate effect. This is the other, less reassuring, side of the episodic nature of the terrorist threats against us. We seem always to react, never to anticipate—and in this form of hasty reaction, with its flavor of humiliation, and of having been outwitted by a wearer of dangerous underwear (or shoes), there lurk always the seeds of over-reaction. No one can move from his seat for an hour before landing. No electronics. No coats on laps.

The broader point is that we need, constantly, to recalibrate our bandwidth of stoicism. We are at war with al Qaeda; that organization is doing its best to kill us. Our need is, of course, to make it as near to impossible for it to do that. But our reaction to each new threat must not be to grant al Qaeda small, but important, victories, in the form of an imposition by the TSA of inconveniences on travelers that have not been thought through, inconveniences that are, themselves, a form of theater—the extempore theater of homeland security.

Here are two modest proposals. First let's have a TSA head, for Pete's sake: a year after President Obama got to the White House, he has yet to appoint an administrator to the outfit that's paid to weed out the dangerous fliers. And second: instead of denying my 10-year-old boy the right to take a pee when his destination is a whole hour away, why can’t we be radically more careful about those we let on board our planes? Abdulmutallab’s name was not on the terrorist “no-fly” list, which has fewer than 4,000 names in total. It was, however, on a larger database of some 550,000 individuals, called TIDE (Terrorist Identities Datamart Environment)—and it was inserted there, it seems, only last month.

Why is anyone on this list allowed to board a plane to the United States? Why not convert TIDE into a “no-fly” list? Let anyone on that list who believes his name is there erroneously, or undeservedly, appeal—through legal channels—for removal. If he has a case, it will surely be heard, and yield a just, airborne outcome.

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This is the sort of unapologetically practical, comprehensively preventive measure we should be thinking of. In the meantime, we await the next threat with fortitude. My guess: a bra bomber…

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU’s Stern Business School. (Follow him on Twitter here.)