Terrorism and risk tolerance

By all accounts, we screwed up in not stopping Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab from ever boarding the Christmas Day flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. But before we become too absorbed in self-blame, it’s worth noting a few points:

• Almost all of the red flags (he paid cash for ticket; he had no luggage; his father had warned U.S. about his extremist links) were things that should have led to his detection and apprehension before he ever made it to the security screening device. Certainly, no changes to in-flight rules and regulations would have helped in these matters. So let’s not get carried away with ridiculous in-flight procedures (such as turning off the televised map that shows the plane’s location or forcing you to stow your laptop for the last hour of flight) that will almost certainly not have any effect on any future terrorist attempts.

• While there are definitely things that need to change to prevent another similar terrorist attempt, this doesn’t mean that our current system was a complete failure. Yes, some luck was involved in the attempt not succeeding. And the actions of other passengers certainly played a role. But I believe it is also true that the attempt failed at least partly because our current security measures forced the terrorist to use a low-probability-of-success method. Otherwise, he would have had many more “desirable” options to choose from.

• We can never be 100% certain that an attack will not succeed. As we try to get the risk closer and closer to zero, there is a trade-off: we give up more and more of our privacy rights and we make flying less and less enjoyable (some would argue it is already completely unenjoyable; count me in this group). At some point, we have to ask: Is the extra security worth the trade-off? For example: Would it be okay to require that every passenger be strip searched if that meant that the odds of a terrorist attacked dropped only from 2 in a million to 1 in a million? I would say no. Bear in mind that no lives have been lost as a result of a terrorist attack on a U.S. plane since 2001.

So let’s fix what needs fixing. But let’s not get carried away and ruin what is already working well enough.

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