Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Neros Fiddle

They say Nero fiddled while Rome burned. These days, we have got politicians, security-industry functionaries and reflexively defensive bureaucrats around the globe fiddling while globalized terrorists try to light fires on airplanes - or do anything else they can do to harm innocent people. The attempted bombing on symbolically frought Christmas Day of a Delta/Northwest jetliner near Detroit has brought these home-truths to the fore.

In the United States, the Usual Suspects went into action with the speed of a jet plane going wheels-up from a runway.

The U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, embraced plausible deniablity, implausibly claaiming that "the system worked" after courageous passengers and crew stopped the accused terrorist from taking 300 lives. She had to backtrack the very next day. Now, U.S. President Obama is acknowledging that the expensive systems put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S. have failed and has ordered a top-to-bottom review.

For their part, the opposition Republican Party used the thwarted attack to verbally whack Obama and his team. Even though, as numerous media reports point out, a Republican Senator, one James DeMint, has blocked a Senate vote on Obama's nominee for head of Homeland Security, Erroll Southers, on the grounds that Southers might allow airport security screeners to join unions. And even though Republican legislators voted against increasing federal funds for airport security just this year. Obama-bashers counter, correctly, that Obama waited until September to nominate his choice to fill the Homeland Security post, vacated back in January. Simultaneously, there is no permanent head of U.S. Customs, either, as the administration has let this important border-security service drift without a steady hand on the rudder.

While all these neros point fingers at each other in an endless circle of blame, Rome - that is to say, the civilized world, and the intricate, vulnerable transport system that makes it possible for that world to function - remains under threat by homicidal fanatics.

It's tempting to just throw up your hands and shrug there's nothing to be done. But we can't just do nothing. There were terrorists well before Sept. 11 and there will be terrorists long after today, but that's no reason to forget about them. They are not forgetting about us. They must be stopped. There are many ideas on how to protect travelers - and commuters, and schoolchildren, and people in markets, and innocents at religious services - from cruel attacks. Some of these ideas contradict each other. We don't yet know what response the world of travel will come up with to counter the latest threats, but we need to consider ideas from everywhere - and not just about new high-tech screening devices but ways of thinking pro-actively.

One of the most lucid voices I have heard is that of Giovanni Bisignani, the director-general and CEO of the International Air Transport Administration, the trade group of 230 airlines.

"Instead of looking for bad things - nail clippers and rogue bottles of shampoo - security systems need to focus on finding bad people,'' Bisignani said in a Sept. 30 statement from IATA's Geneva headquarters. "Adding new hardware to an old system will not deliver the results we need. It is time for governments to invest in a process built around a checkpoint of the future that combines the best of screening technology with the best of intelligence-gathering. Such a system would give screeners access to important passenger data to make effective risk assessments. The data are being collected. The technology exists. Industry is supportive.''

This is the kind of wholistic thinking we need.

They say out of crisis comes opportunity. We need to find the opportunity in this crisis, and there is no time to lose in exploiting it.

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