Sunday, 11 September 2011

Is travel safer today than 10 years ago? No.

Is travel safer today than it was 10 years ago on 11 September 2001?


Here’s how and why:

1. Travel by land instead of by air.

Some people switched from flying to driving or taking trains or buses because they became more afraid to fly after 11 September 2001. Others switched because the additional time required for new “security” procedures made surface travel competitive with air travel in speed and convenience over longer distances.

Whatever the mix of reasons, the fact is that many people are travelling longer distances than they were 10 years ago by car, train, or bus instead of by plane.

But airliners remain the safest mode of travel, per passenger mile, by orders of magnitude. And surface transportation remains overwhelmingly the most dangerous aspect of travel, killing tens of thousands of people on roads in the U.S. alone every year.

The shift from air travel to surface travel since 11 September 2001 — driven by a mix of fear and “security” delays and hassles — has probably resulted in some hundreds of additional deaths of travellers over that decade.

2. Opportunity costs of “security theater” and travel surveillance and control.

Every dollar spent on “security theater”, surveillance of travellers, and permission-based government control of travel is a dollar not spent on things that might actually make us safer.

Shoe searches and virtual strip-search machines do nothing to make us safer as long as rollaboard suitcases — with handles made out of two-foot-long, x-ray opaque, metal tubes ideally suited to contain anything from a pipe bomb or the barrel of a firearm to a sword or spear — are allowed as carryon luggage.

Lifetime dossiers of airline reservations and requirements for passengers to show government-issued ID credentials and obtain government permission to fly do nothing to make us safer unless the government (a) has a complete and accurate “pre-crime” list of would-be future air terrorists, and (b) the people on that list only try to fly using their real identities, and never using stolen identities of non-suspects.

How much has been wasted on things like this?

Accurate totals, including those incurred by governments and the travel industry, are hard to come by. But worldwide spending on aviation security exceeds US$10 billion per year, or a total of US$100 billion — almost all of it on security theater, surveillance, and government control of travel rather than safety — over the decade since 11 September 2001.

How might that wasted money otherwise have been spent to make travel safer?

First, it could have been spent on surface transportation — the truly dangerous type of travel. For example, if as much effort had been put into keeping real, recidivist drunk drivers off the roads as has been spent on keeping suspected potential terrorists off planes, thousands of lives might have been saved.

Second, it could have been spent to improve mass transit and get more people to take trains and buses — at least an order of magnitude safer per passenger mile than private cars in the USA, even if less safe than flying — rather than travelling by private car.

And third, if it were going to be spent on making air travel even more safe, it could have been spent on upgrades to the antiquated U.S. air traffic control system.

3. Safety and security threats from government surveillance of travellers.

It should be no surprise that the primary focus of new suspicionless dragnet government surveillance since 11 September 2001 has been air travellers.

Regardless of whether you are subjected to more intensive search or your person or luggage, or eventually allowed through the checkpoint (after the government gives its permission for you to travel), you are now effectively (if illegally) required to identify yourself whenever you fly, so that your identifying information, airline reservations, and other details of your air travel can be compiled into a lifetime travel history available to the government for … well, for whatever any future government, or anyone else with whom they “share” this information, decides to use it for.

Already, those government dossiers and travel control mechanisms are being used to keep some U.S. citizens from leaving the country, and to keep others form returning home from overseas.

And the potential for future use of this information and these control mechanisms against innocent would-be travellers constitutes an even greater threat to our safety and security. Can you think of a system of government dossiers about the private, legal activities of innocent citizens that hasn’t eventually been misused against the public? IRS tax files, for example, were used against Nixon’s list of enemies, while “confidential” and “legally protected” census data was used to generate lists of individual Japanese-Americans, by name, address, age, and occupation, which were used to round them up and “intern” them behind barbed wire under armed guard in “camps” in the desert.

(For more on the security threats posed by surveillance capabilities embedded in IT infrastructure, see Susan Landau’s latest book, Surveillance or Security? The Risks Posed by New Wiretapping Technologies.)

4. Encouragement of vigilantism.

Even before 11 September 2001, there had been incidents in which an airline passenger was killed by other passengers who thought they were endangering the flight.

Today, airline passengers would be much more likely to take direct action to stop anyone they thought was trying to hijack or sabotage a plane. That makes it highly unlikely that hijackers could ever again use a plane as a weapon against targets on the ground, and thus greatly reduces the damage form the worst-plausible-case scenario of air terrorism and the appeal of airliners as potential terrorist targets/tools.

But whether on the whole that makes you more or less safe depends on whether you think you are more likely to be saved by passenger vigilantes, or mistakenly become their target.

White-skinned European-Americans may feel safer. But many Muslims, Sikhs (often mistaken for Muslims because of their turbans, even though there are far more turban-wearing Sikhs than turban-wearing Muslims in the USA), Arabs (a large proportion of whom in the USA are Christians, rather than Muslims), and South Asians (often mistakenly taken for Muslim even though most of them are Hindu and many are zealously anti-Muslim) now justifiably fear that any time they fly, they could be singled out for anything from harassment to vigilante violence.

We haven’t yet (that I know of) had an in-flight lynching of a suspected terrorist since 11 September 2001, but I assume it’s only a matter of time. Already there have been numerous cases — including some reported just today — of airline passengers thrown off planes and detained and interrogated by police merely because of unfounded suspicions by other passengers. Such innocent behavior as praying (how many fearful Christian passengers pray during every landing?) or speaking in a foreign language have prompted this sort of discriminatory treatment.

5. Anti-Americanism.

In the last 10 years, the U.S. government has made new enemies around the world by its wars on Afghanistan, Iraq, and Islam; by its backing of dictators, such as in Yemen, as long as they are willing to collaborate in the U.S. “War on Terror”; by its siding with the monarchies and against the popular movements for democratization in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and elsewhere; by its mistreatment and mistrust of foreigners within the USA as well as of visitors and would-be visitors; by its defense of the legitimacy of torture and government kidnapping; and by the self-righteousness of its exceptionalist claims to a unique status as victim of terrorism exempt from international human rights law and the laws of war.

The election of President Obama brought hope and an opportunity for a fresh start, but most of that international goodwill has been lost as the Obama Administration has continued its predecessor’s xenophobic, repressive, and belligerent policies around the world.

Whatever you think of that description of U.S. policies or their perception, the inescapable fact is that far more people around the world hate the U.S. government than did so 10 years ago.

Most of those “anti-American” people remain friendly to individual U.S. citizens, but the danger for travellers — of any nationality — of getting caught in the crossfire of actions directed at the U.S. government is significantly greater than it was a decade ago. Sadly, U.S. government paranoia is proving self-fulfilling, creating anti-Americanism even where there was none before.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 11 September 2011, 21:23 ( 9:23 PM)

Luggage handle tubes are made of lead?

Posted by: Glenn Dixon, 12 September 2011, 07:36 ( 7:36 AM)

No, rollaboard handles aren't lead. But they are thick enough metal to appear opaque to the low-intensity x-ray imaging systems used to examine carry-on luggage. And because they normally appear opaque to airport baggage screeners, they could be more heavily shielded, if necessary to conceal other metal objects inside them, without making the images look anomalous.

Posted by: Edward Hasbrouck, 12 September 2011, 08:22 ( 8:22 AM)

Couldn't agree more about the "security theater."

Posted by: slavvy, 14 September 2011, 11:11 (11:11 AM)
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