Liquids And Clippers And Gels, Oh My!

4 comments December 29th, 2007at 05:52pm Posted by Eli

NYT’s Patrick Smith is fed up with airport security:

Six years after the terrorist attacks of 2001, airport security remains a theater of the absurd. The changes put in place following the September 11th catastrophe have been drastic, and largely of two kinds: those practical and effective, and those irrational, wasteful and pointless.

The first variety have taken place almost entirely behind the scenes. Explosives scanning for checked luggage, for instance, was long overdue and is perhaps the most welcome addition. Unfortunately, at concourse checkpoints all across America, the madness of passenger screening continues in plain view. It began with pat-downs and the senseless confiscation of pointy objects. Then came the mandatory shoe removal, followed in the summer of 2006 by the prohibition of liquids and gels. We can only imagine what is next.


In years past, a takeover meant hostage negotiations and standoffs; crews were trained in the concept of “passive resistance.” All of that changed forever the instant American Airlines Flight 11 collided with the north tower. What weapons the 19 men possessed mattered little; the success of their plan relied fundamentally on the element of surprise. And in this respect, their scheme was all but guaranteed not to fail.

For several reasons — particularly the awareness of passengers and crew — just the opposite is true today. Any hijacker would face a planeload of angry and frightened people ready to fight back. Say what you want of terrorists, they cannot afford to waste time and resources on schemes with a high probability of failure. And thus the September 11th template is all but useless to potential hijackers.


The folly is much the same with respect to the liquids and gels restrictions, introduced two summers ago following the breakup of a London-based cabal that was planning to blow up jetliners using liquid explosives. Allegations surrounding the conspiracy were revealed to substantially embellished. In an August, 2006 article in the New York Times, British officials admitted that public statements made following the arrests were overcooked, inaccurate and “unfortunate.” The plot’s leaders were still in the process of recruiting and radicalizing would-be bombers. They lacked passports, airline tickets and, most critical of all, they had been unsuccessful in actually producing liquid explosives. Investigators later described the widely parroted report that up to ten U.S airliners had been targeted as “speculative” and “exaggerated.”

Among first to express serious skepticism about the bombers’ readiness was Thomas C. Greene, whose essay in The Register explored the extreme difficulty of mixing and deploying the types of binary explosives purportedly to be used….“The notion that deadly explosives can be cooked up in an airplane lavatory is pure fiction,” Greene told me during an interview. “A handy gimmick for action movies and shows like ‘24.’ The reality proves disappointing: it’s rather awkward to do chemistry in an airplane toilet. Nevertheless, our official protectors and deciders respond to such notions instinctively, because they’re familiar to us: we’ve all seen scenarios on television and in the cinema. This, incredibly, is why you can no longer carry a bottle of water onto a plane.”


“I would not hesitate to allow that liquid explosives can pose a danger,” Greene added, recalling Ramzi Yousef’s 1994 detonation of a small nitroglycerine bomb aboard Philippine Airlines Flight 434…. “But the idea that confiscating someone’s toothpaste is going to keep us safe is too ridiculous to entertain.”

…At every concourse checkpoint you’ll see a bin or barrel brimming with contraband containers taken from passengers for having exceeded the volume limit. Now, the assumption has to be that the materials in those containers are potentially hazardous. If not, why were they seized in the first place? But if so, why are they dumped unceremoniously into the trash? They are not quarantined or handed over to the bomb squad; they are simply thrown away. The agency seems to be saying that it knows these things are harmless. But it’s going to steal them anyway, and either you accept it or you don’t fly.


In the end, I’m not sure which is more troubling, the inanity of the existing regulations, or the average American’s acceptance of them and willingness to be humiliated. These wasteful and tedious protocols have solidified into what appears to be indefinite policy, with little or no opposition. There ought to be a tide of protest rising up against this mania. Where is it? At its loudest, the voice of the traveling public is one of grumbled resignation. The op-ed pages are silent, the pundits have nothing meaningful to say.


How we got to this point is an interesting study in reactionary politics, fear-mongering and a disconcerting willingness of the American public to accept almost anything in the name of “security.” Conned and frightened, our nation demands not actual security, but security spectacle. And although a reasonable percentage of passengers, along with most security experts, would concur such theater serves no useful purpose, there has been surprisingly little outrage. In that regard, maybe we’ve gotten exactly the system we deserve.

As I have said before, all bin Laden needs to do to complete the demoralization and humiliation of the American people is unleash a very inept Underwear Bomber.

Entry Filed under: Terrorism


  • 1. Cujo359  |  December 30th, 2007 at 1:53 am

    Smith’s been writing this sort of thing for years at Salon. Unfortunately, nothing’s changed, at least not for the better. My last trip I was lectured on how the zippable bag I put all my liquids into was more than a quart, which apparently is the maximum allowed for some reason. If you’d offered me a hundred dollars I don’t think I could have poured even one quart of water into that thing.

    It’s almost too much trouble to fly anymore.

  • 2. Ol'Froth  |  December 30th, 2007 at 1:13 pm

    I’ve been squealing about the checkpoint silliness for years. Anyone who pulls a boxknife or nailclipper on an airliner today is going to have that instrument shoved up their nether regions. Remember the crazy guy who tried to break into the cockpit on a domestic flight a few years ago? IIRC, the passengers managed to kill him via positional asphixia.

  • 3. Ol'Froth  |  December 30th, 2007 at 1:19 pm

    Ahh, here it is:

    SALT LAKE CITY (AP) – A passenger who tried to break into the cockpit during a Southwest Airlines flight was killed by the passengers who restrained him, not by a heart attack, an autopsy concluded.

    The U.S. Attorney’s office described Jonathan Burton’s Aug. 11 death as an act of self-defense by frightened passengers and said it would not file criminal charges.

    Burton, 19, of Las Vegas, became combative 20 minutes before Flight 1763 was due to land, hitting other passengers and pounding on the locked cockpit door. As many as eight of the plane’s 120 passengers subdued him and held him down until the flight arrived in Salt Lake City.

    Burton died after being removed from the plane, and authorities believed he had died of a heart attack.

    However, the autopsy report classified his death a homicide because it resulted from “intentional actions by another individual or individuals.”

    The report, released by Burton’s family, said he suffocated. He also had bruises and scratches on his torso, face and neck and suffered blunt force injuries.

    “He was strangled, beaten and kicked,” said family attorney Kent Spence. “We’d like to know how this could have happened to this young man. This kid had no history of violence, he would sooner take a spider outside than kill it.”

    The autopsy found low levels of marijuana in Burton’s body but said that was an “unlikely explanation” for his violent outburst.

    The family has not decided whether to sue Southwest Airlines or the passengers, Spence said.

    Federal officials recently reported a dramatic increase in air-rage incidents nationwide. Statistics from the Federal Aviation Administration showed 292 incidents of “unruly passengers” last year, up from 138 in 1995. The FAA can recommend fines of up to $25,000 for airline passengers who “assault, threaten, intimidate or interfere with a crew member.”

  • 4. Eli  |  December 30th, 2007 at 4:57 pm

    The liquids/gels stuff doesn’t affect me personally because I never put those in carryon, but having to take off my shoes irritates the hell out of me – getting through the security line would be a lot more manageable without that.

    Also, can someone please tell me how someone could try to hijack a plane with nail clippers without the entire cabin laughing at him?

    And yes, as Smith & Froth observe, hijacking a plane without guns is pretty much impossible now, unless the hijackers outnumber the passengers.

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