My Brief Thoughts on Northwest Flight 253

The times they are a-changin’.

This post seems to be older than 11 years—a long time on the internet. It might be outdated.

I’m going to keep this short, no more than 250 500 1000 words1.

As you all know by now, there was an attempt to blow up another airplane. Although it was initially reported someone lighting off firecrackers, it was soon discovered to be a makeshift bomb and “Bomb experts say there was more than enough explosive to bring down the Northwest jet, which had nearly 300 people aboard, had the detonator not failed.”2

I haven’t heard much as to the explosive nature of the bomb, other than it was “PETN3 and possibly a glycol-based liquid explosive”4 and it was “carried in a soft plastic container – possibly a condom.”5

While there may have been enough explosives present by mass to destroy an airliner (and I even have some doubts about that6, given the lack of calculations I’ve seen), what are the odds7 of our suspect (or any future suspect) maximizing the effectiveness of such an explosive given their circumstances?

Here’s what I’m really concerned about though: Richard Clarke, former counterterrorism czar and ABC News consultant, has this to say, “We’ve known for a long time that this is possible and that we really have to replace our scanning devices with more modern systems.” Clarke said full body scans were needed, “but they’re expensive and they’re intrusive. They invade people’s privacy.”8

Responding to a need for fuller and more frequent body pat-downs and scanning, Rep. Peter King of New York, the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, said, “I think we have to head in that direction… Yes, there is some brief violation of privacy with a full body scan. But on the other hand, if we can save thousands of lives, to me, we have to make that decision.”9

Why are we continuing to move in a direction that is A) ineffective and B) in violation of our constitutional rights10? (See also: A Discussion on the Fourth Amendment and National Security)

In response, the TSA has issued emergency rules that I’m sure will go far in helping keep people safe: From

Airline passengers traveling to the U.S. from other countries were ordered to remain seated for the last hour in flight, and were limited to one carry-on item in response to an attempted terrorist attack yesterday on a Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit from Amsterdam.
New U.S. Transportation Security Administration rules also prohibit passengers from getting anything from their carry-on bags or having anything in their laps in the final hour of flight, the agency said.

Bruce Schneier, an internationally renowned security technologist and author, had this to say in response to Northwest Flight 253 and the new TSA rules:

And what sort of magical thinking is behind the rumored TSA rule about keeping passengers seated during the last hour of flight? Do we really think the terrorist won’t think of blowing up their improvised explosive devices during the first hour of flight?

For years I’ve been saying this:

Only two things have made flying safer [since 9/11]: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers.

This week, the second one worked over Detroit. Security succeeded.

Now is not the time stripping more of my rights away in the name of security; I’m and sick and tired of being treated like a criminal. (My new policy: “Do I have the right to refuse this search?”)

Now is the time establish a new type of a system; a system that works. I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that what we have now and the path we’re on is ineffective and needs to change.

And may God help whoever tries to blowup a plane I’m on; because I will own their sorry ass.

Thumbnail: “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” from Network (1976), released by MGM. © 1976 MGM.

  1. including quotes and footnotes 

  2. Officials: Only A Failed Detonator Saved Northwest Flight 

  3. NB: Same explosive Richard Reid used in 2001; gee, taking my shoes off during screening really helped prevent that from happening again… 

  4. U.S. Airline Security Reviews Under Way 

  5. Official: Explosive PETN Used in Attack 

  6. PETN – hard to detect and just 100g can destroy a car 

  7. The Odds of Airborne Terror 

  8. Officials: Only A Failed Detonator Saved Northwest Flight 

  9. U.S. Airline Security Reviews Under Way 

  10. “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” – Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution 

8 thoughts on “My Brief Thoughts on Northwest Flight 253”

  1. While I can definitely appreciate your sentiments, I would like to pose the following food-for-thought:

    While I certainly agree that it is improper for a federal agency to further strip (sometimes literally) more rights from airline passengers, I do not believe that a full body scan should be taken off the table. As for me, I believe it is ultimately the responsibility of the airline industry and namely the airports themselves (which I understand to be privately owned and operated) to ensure the safety and security of its clients.

    I believe that having TSA responsible for security at airports is a bit misguided in the first place, because I would hope that the Government would stay within a smaller operational scope and not hire so many people (this coming from a low-level bureaucrat himself). However, I do not believe I would consider any of my constitutionally protected rights (that is, protection from government) to be violated if the airports themselves decided to implement full body scan and require them for all passengers. It would be a requirement that all scans (presupposing there is a recorded image or video) would be securely maintained by the airport and not the government and that release of a video could only be made by court-order and upon detainment of a suspected malicious person. That is to say that TSA (which we will suppose will never go away) could be asked by the airport to detain someone with bags of nitro-glycerin on their legs, discovered in a full body scan, and charges could be made at that point by TSA of the criminal nature, while the airport could make its own civil charges.

    In this way, our privacy is still protected from unlawful search and seisure by the US Government, but as with any private organization; they maintain the right to deny service to anyone unwilling to comply with their terms of use agreement, which would include the possibility of a full body image scan.

    All that being said, I would agree completely that the rights things seem to have happened on flight 253; albeit it is a bit of a miracle that the detonator was a dud. It goes to show that there are still loopholes in our current system that present major risks to airline travelers. I too believe that the system needs rethinking, and I would like to see more of the responsibility lie in the hands of the airline industry.

    1. Jonathan,

      It seems like you’re splitting hairs on who does the searching, which I don’t think is the responsible course of action. What help have these more invasive screenings done to prevent these sorts of incidents? And at what cost?

      Furthermore, United States v. Guest 383 U.S. 745 (1966) established that, inter alia, there is a “constitutional right to travel freely from State to State and to use highways and other instrumentalities for that purpose.”

      This isn’t about *who* does the screen, this is, among other things, about the screenings being unconstitutional and ineffective.

  2. I’m a little bit surprised that you’re surprised by the steps the government is taking. Three things: 1) the government always uses crises to take more power for itself; by now the government has learned that it can get around the constitution with ease (few in government even acknowledge it any more, and when they do it’s always a “living document” that does whatever they want it to); and 3) it doesn’t matter if the system works, because there’s nothing to compare it to.

    To explain point three in greater detail, take the recent economic stimulus package. Government economic projections said that unemployment would fall after the stimulus and would rise if government action was not taken. The stimulus was enacted, and unemployment went up almost as much as they predicted it would WITHOUT the stimulus. So did they admit their error and pull out? Of course not. They just claim that unemployment would have risen even MORE if they hadn’t acted. See, it doesn’t matter if the government makes things worse, because they can always claim that they’re keeping things from getting really shitty. And people, for the most part, buy it, because they don’t want to take on the responsibility of autonomy.

    As for your “new policy”, the answer is no. Government officials (and most of the general public) don’t believe in natural rights any longer, they believe that rights are created by government mandate. So if that is going to be your new policy, you’d better start getting to the airport a lot earlier, because they will simply assume that you have something to hide and will detain you accordingly.

    Finally, if terrorists can figure out how to get around whatever security measures are in place in airports, don’t you think they’ve figured out how to get around (or are at least conscious of) passenger resistance? My guess is that if you’re unlucky enough to be on a plane that gets blown up, you won’t ever know what hit you.

      1. Yes. Is your point that you’re withdrawing your consent and compliance? My point was that, generally, the government would rather have a compliant populace than a safe populace. When push comes to shove, they will strip you of your rights rather than let you strip them of their power.

        I read all of your post and every word of the link. In the future, please show me the basic respect of at least acknowledging the complexity of my detailed and thoughtful comment. I found your reply to be somewhat offensive, as it dismissed my entire comment on the assumption that I did not understand one small point of your post (which I did).

  3. Staples: you are indeed correct. no matter the party, the political powers that be are always grasping at whatever additional control they can gain. Ferg, I don’t think you’ll disagree with this point, in fact, I’m certain the point you are trying to make is that this is one more reduction in personal freedom coming from the GOV. Here’s a little clarification on my point. I DO NOT believe that the GOV should be any more invasive than they already are and would fight with you to reduce their invasive footprint. however, it is my assertion that there is nothing to preclude private industry from taking measures to ensure the safety of its clients. I believe that establishing as a requirement for travel, the consent to have one’s person wholly searched via a full body scan, is not unreasonable if it is the wish of the commercial entity which is supplying it. If another airline does not want to offer that sort of safety measure for their flights and thereby offer a less invasive but possibly less secure option for travel, they may. Competition will weed out the option that is least preferred in the market. Yes, entitlement to ‘free travel’ in our great nation is all well and good, but that cannot prevent private industry from choosing to invade that privacy.

    Example: If a bread shop says that bread costs $1, but you must also submit to shopping in their store with nothing but your underwear on to ensure you are not carrying a weapon to rob the store and to ensure you’re not sticking bread under your coat… by all means, this should be fully protected by constitutional freedoms. However, one would hope that another vendor would open across the street and sell bread for $2 and not care what you wear into the store. As long as the market allows for new businesses to enter the market and there is no monopoly on service, private entities can place whatever stipulations they wish upon their goods and the environment in which they’re sold.

    Our situation is a bit different because GOV already has too much regulatory oversight of the industry. To operate a commercial airliner, one must opt to subscribe to the Federal regs pertaining to national security and safety. Vis-a-vis, if a customer opts to choose a commercial airliner to fly to their destination and is properly informed of the mandates, requirements, and restrictions of choosing to travel in this way, there can be little claim of rights being stripped. After all, flying is a privilege, not a right. One could drive, train, cruise, walk, bike, or scoot to their destination with half as much screening and invasion of privacy.

    Staples, the assertion that people no longer believe in natural rights, is an overstatement to say the least. 1) ‘GOV Officials’ ought to be more appropriately termed ‘Politicians,’ 2) I believe that there is a major movement and outcry from the general public calling for the reduction of GOV and a return to basic natural rights, 3) Natural rights must necessarily be balanced by natural responsibilities. This up and coming generation are too wrapped up in entitlements, which they call rights, which are not in fact rights but often privileges associated with living in a free society. If we do not call upon the American people to take personal responsibility for their actions (this includes corporations, aka if a bank f’s up, they’ve got to deal with bankruptcy or closure and the ramifications thereof) then we will create fuel for the entitlement generation who will continue to push the government to regulate and control so as to ‘protect’ their ‘rights.’ I hope that makes sense, if not I would be happy to further clarify.

    Good discussion, by the way!

    1. Oops. Didn’t know you were the Jonathan who posted earlier. I would (hopefully) have clarified had I recognized that a government employee was a part of the conversation.

      I have nothing but support and love for your argument for the free market and against government intervention. The problem is not, however, that airports across the country have decided to hire the TSA to do their security work. The problem is that the government says, “You want to operate an airport? We’ll take care of security through the TSA.” You make a good observation that air travel is a privilege, not a right. So is driving. So is taking the train. So is eating. The point is not that I have a right to air travel, but rather that the government does not have a right to mandate full body searches as a requisite for flying (I won’t get into an enumerated list of what the government has the right to do, but I’m relatively confident that we can agree on this issue).

      I can choose to drive instead of fly for economic or personal reasons, but the fact that I can drive does not give the government carte blanche to enact security measures and then say, “Flying is a privilege, not a right. If you don’t like it, you can drive.” If that were the case, why not subject me to regular invasive searches as a condition for issuing me a driver’s license, and then say, “If you don’t like it, you can always walk.” That makes every bit as much sense as the flight regulations. You may laugh at the idea now, but if terrorists start using car bombs, such searches will have ample precedent in the airline industry.

      With regard to your point about the public outcry for natural rights, what has it gotten us? What can it possibly get us? We’ll get our rights back when we stop asking politicians for permission to live our lives and start taking those rights back (and I advocate non-violent means of seizing liberty, for the record).

      With regard to your point about natural rights vs natural responsibilities, I have to disagree, but qualify by saying that I think you misunderstand my conception of natural rights. If something is a right, it is not contingent on anything else (i.e. natural responsibilities). But when I say natural rights, I’m referring to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, all of which boil down to property rights. The rights you’re referring to are the antithesis of property rights. Most people believe in rights to food, shelter, clothing, water, health care, justice, employment, access to the internet, education, transportation, security, big-screen tvs, etc. The problem with those rights is that they come at the expense of someone else’s property rights: your right to food must necessarily come at the expense of my right to keep the money I earn. And when you say that people have the right to this or that, you need an institution that can take property from productive people and give it to everyone else. Rights to all those things I listed above can only come from the government, because only the government has the enforcement tools to collect from some people and give to others. Natural rights are just that: natural. They’re not conferred by the government, though they may be supported by the government on occasion. These rights can and are violated by people and institutions, but a right violated is still a right. It sounds like we’re basically on the same page here, but I just wanted to clarify myself.

      I like the conversation much more now that I know all the parties involved.

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