There’s nary an airport where soldiers in camouflage fatigues with rifles are not to be seen. It’s for security, folks, although I can’t imagine what a company of infantry can do to make an airport safe, unless the government expects attack by squadrons of Arabs mounted on camels swinging scimitars. Since their utility is dubious, I take it that the soldiers are there to make people feel safe and encourage them to take up air travel again. If battle fatigues near the check-in line is what it takes to resume the “normal life” government officials are talking up, so be it.
Nevertheless, there’s normal and there’s new normal. Normal, it seems, now involves getting to the airport two to three hours before departure, there to wait in line. Young children, people on crutches and in wheelchairs, parents with babes in arms, old people-everybody is going to have to wait and wait and wait while bags, tickets, bodies and identities are gone over and cleared for takeoff. If this is to be a part of the new normal, there will be more costs than mere inconvenience.
Before Sept. 11, the domestic airlines were handling something on the order of 50 million passengers a month, about 17 million of them traveling for business. If each of them has to wait one extra hour, it is estimated that the cost in lost output per month will be almost $700 million. That is a gigantic price to pay, all the more for what will probably be a very marginal increase in security once the thrill wears off and the increased searching, questioning and probing becomes routine and of lessened public interest (until the next horrific act is committed; then, of course, we’ll get hopped up about security again).
Think what’s involved here. We can postulate that fear and the lengthier time it takes will cause fewer to travel by air. There might even be a 20 percent permanent drop in passengers, so that only 40 million will be using the airports. Even so, it will be extremely difficult to check and search these people carefully and effectively. Sitting on a stool looking at X-ray pictures of suitcases hour after hour invites inattention.
Keeping the quality up will be no easy job. Recognition of this has prompted complaints that we don’t pay airport security personnel enough, as though there is an unemployed personnel pool of high-class security people waiting to be hired. There aren’t, and we are going to have to entrust our safety to pretty much the same people we have been counting on with indifferent results for years.
For such problematic increases in our safety, the indirect costs in lost economic output are too large to be carried for long. When you go to war, you don’t burden the economy which must sustain the war effort with dubious costs and impediments. The idea ought to be to make things more efficient, not less so. Thus, this business of setting up checkpoints to inspect trucks is a punishing price to put on efficiency and productivity for the next-to-nonexistent protection of the civilian population. Consider what goes on at a truck stop. A police officer or some such person gets a manifest or some kind of bill of lading from the driver. This document is going to tell the inspector next to nothing, so he proceeds to open up the back of the truck, where he is confronted with boxes or crates or bags or whatever. But the inspector doesn’t really know what form of contraband he is looking for-a bottle of botulism, cylinders of poison gas, crates of land mines, etc., etc.-and all of these deadly things are easily made to look like ordinary items of commerce.
We can’t station soldiers around every electrical generating plant, every drinking-water reservoir, every atomic and chemical installation. If we try to go in that direction, we will drift into a costly, muscle-bound system which, instead of being fail-safe, will be security-safe. A different approach is needed.
One worth considering is the security equivalent of the E-Z Pass. The Security Pass could be a card-assuming the government can make one-that is truly impossible to forge, or that exists in a central computer. It would be issued only to American citizens. At airports and other places where security checks create lines and delays, pass holders would be able to go to a fast line where their fingerprints are scanned to verify that they are who they say they are. A similar system should be available for companies in the freight business. The Security Pass is for all practical purposes a national identity card, which makes civil libertarians shudder, but what I am proposing is not a mandatory card. If you don’t want one, don’t apply for one; the whole thing should be voluntary, although those without a quick pass card will have to wait on the long, slow line.
I doubt that tightening procedures for entering the country can be so well waterproofed that we will catch all or even most would-be terrorists trying to get in. Nevertheless, some may be caught, and a better system will make it easier after there has been a terror attack to track down the perpetrators (assuming they are alive) and those in cahoots with them. To that end, there are quite a few things that can be done. Everyone entering the country should be required to surrender a passport. We could also return to what the United States once did, which is to require anyone coming here for more than a short stay to have a sponsor who is legally and financially responsible for the entrant; non-citizens should also be required to register with the police on a monthly basis.
All that said and done, the odds of stopping these people on their way in with or without vest-pocket-sized weapons of mass destruction are only so-so at best. The terrorist threat bears an unhappy likeness to the illegal-drug industry, another conspiracy whose business it is to move people and contraband into the country. After a generation of struggle and untold billions spent on border searches, police work, foreign-intelligence activities, raids, traps and snares, the price of drugs keeps dropping, a sure sign that the government fails much more often than it succeeds. With all the money and cops and electronic equipment, has there been one week in the past 35 years that the United States has been able to close its borders to the wholesale importation of drugs? I doubt it.
We’ve seen a succession of Pablo Escobars, the functional drug-smuggling equivalents of Osama bin Laden, rise up, prosper and get bumped off, to be replaced by another “drug lord” (as they call them on TV) and another drug cartel. Given the history of the “war on drugs,” we have reason to question if the United States government can fight two wars against vast, international conspiracies at the same time. If they are to be fought with a heavy reliance on government agents inspecting luggage and patting people down at key transit points, we are not going to do well, and thus may see a continuation of the bloody conflicts of the Middle East fought out here on our streets and avenues.
We must hunt these people and kill them. That can’t be done with satellites, fancy-schmancy electronics or shrewd detective work. It can be done by cultivating stool pigeons and traitors to the other side. And that is accomplished not by appealing to anybody’s better nature, but by paying them-offering rewards, bribes, etc. Let the money flow. The objection to this approach is that we are dealing with religious fanatics who have shown time and again that if dying is what they must do to kill us, then that’s what they’ll do. How can you possibly bribe such people? It sounds ridiculous, but it isn’t.
The holy book of the Christian religion teaches the efficacy of offering bribes to dedicated people to betray their beliefs. Christ was surrounded by a hard-core group whom some might call fanatics, but even among that group of 12, there was one who took the money. There is a Judas in every crowd. Be sure of it.
In the meantime, we bomb. We must hope our generals know what they’re doing. Maybe they think they can do in Afghanistan what they did in Serbia-that is, bomb the enemy into submission. Or maybe they have another plan; but the longer the bombing goes on, the graver the risks. We will always remember Sept. 11, but the Arab world cannot be counted on to do the same. If the bombing goes on indefinitely, you may be sure that many an Arab will turn very hostile to us.
We might also consider stopping what the government and the TV calls “humanitarian” food drops. It’s all too American, those packages of beans, rice and other goodies including-would you believe it?-HandiWipes. (Don’t omit giving the camel a quick clean-up, too.) While the TV talkers felicitate us for being such generous fellows, let’s not be surprised if, in other parts of the world, sending cargo planes after the bombers to drop food after the bombs may be considered a grotesque, cynical or pathologically narcissistic gesture.
As this strange war goes on, the President might do well to stop talking about freedom. The war has nothing to do with freedom. It has to with defending ourselves against terror and murder; it has to do with defending a worldwide system of nations and people getting along together halfway decently on more days than not. But it doesn’t have to do with freedom: Not one government that we are depending on in and around Afghanistan would be in power the day after a free election. The introduction of democracy in those countries would immediately result in our getting the boot; we know it, they know it and George Bush knows it. We are defending ourselves against getting killed by the jihadists. People in the Arab world can surely understand self-defense. Fancy talk about freedom brings Mr. Bush close to the word he dare not utter: crusade. When he says “freedom,” methinks they hear crap; they hear, “The Americans want to impose themselves and their godless, sex-obsessed ways on us.” Let’s keep it simple, reasonably honest and soldier on.