The war on toiletries

John quotes Michael O’Leary, the colourful CEO of RyanAir, complaining that by instituting and continuing extra security measures the government is keeping people from flying and handing the terrorists a victory.

Now, I’ve always assumed, perhaps foolishly, that the agencies concerned were smarter than that. They must know that it would be possible to make explosives look like chewing gum or talcum powder. That I could rig my laptop to wake up half way through the flight and blow up its lithium-ion batteries in the hold. That you could make some nasty cocktails out of the liquor or perfumes on board and set light to a fuse with a magnifying glass. Or trigger it electrically using the power sockets in the bathroom… and so on. If you’re really keen to bring down a big plane, and all else fails, it’s not that difficult to fly a small one into it.

No, I assume that they know this. It’s pretty hard to defeat determined terrorists, intelligent ones at any rate. (There are the dumb ones, I suppose, who might think, “They’ve just uncovered a plot to use liquid explosives. Now might be a good time to try using liquid explosives.” ) But most of the general public don’t know it, and think that these measures will make a substantial difference, and so keep flying.

I assumed that the real aim of the stringent measures was to keep people like Mr O’Leary in customers. If plots were uncovered and nothing were done, it might be more damaging to the industry. But it’s a fine balance…

Follow-up: Actually, the more I think about it, it would be quite easy to cause a fire on board a plane, or to take out a member or two of the crew, but that’s rather different from bringing the plane down. I’d guess that your average Jumbo comes equipped with pretty good fire extinguishers in both the cabin and the hold. So you probably do need a reasonable explosion on board to do any serious damage and, while you can make explosives look like other things, the swab tests that they’re doing at the moment are probably rather good at detecting most of the suspect chemicals. So perhaps they do some good after all, beyond the purely psychological.

Of course, the best way to prevent terrorism is not to do things which make people want to terrorise you. Some people are crazy and will want to blow people up anyway, but it’s good not to give them an excuse…

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1 Comment

Looking at terrorist attacks which failed and succeeded (at least those widely reported), I notice some things:
– Most foiled attempts are cut off before the plan was put into action. This suggests that our counter-intelligence efforts are working and that infiltration and espionage are key to preventing terrorism.
– Most successful terrorist attacks are not technically very advanced. While it is possible to make explosives which look like normal things, making or procuring the more advanced explosives increases the terrorist’s risk of detection. Thus there is some value in tightening security.

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