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Why the Show of Force Won't Work

Mises Daily: Thursday, September 20, 2001 by

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In the days since the tragic attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon, Americans have seen their lives turned upside down in the government’s show of force that is supposed to be protecting lives. Like so many other things the government does, however, this current fixation on security will do nothing but make our lives more insecure and place more and more people in danger.

The changes in the airline industry are already well known and were clearly documented in a recent Mises.org daily column.  Should these restrictions continue, air travel as we have known it is gone forever, as the government seeks to bring airline regulation back through the back door.  And this security emphasis is not just happening with airlines.  People everywhere in the United States are being subjected to searches that just a couple weeks ago would have seemed ludicrous.

For example, people attending college and professional sporting events are now going to be subject to massive individual searches.  The University of Alabama has announced that any car parked near Bryant-Denny Stadium will be subject to bomb searches with dogs.  Thus we imagine the ridiculous prospect of Mr. and Mrs. Jones from Scottsboro, Alabama, who have been attending Alabama games for forty years, suddenly being treated as terrorist suspects.  Other colleges have announced similar policies.  It boggles the mind.

This show of force ostensibly to "close the barn door now that the horse has escaped" is not only misguided, it is dangerous for many reasons.  And for all the assurances otherwise, it will not make us one whit safer, and it may even create new sets of dangers.  Like the "zero tolerance" policies that have ruled government schools since the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, these new policies are not based on anything sound; rather, they are an attempt to control ordinary citizens, the same ones who have never posed a danger to anyone.

In fact, there is an eerie similarity between how the government says it is "protecting" us from future terrorist attacks and how the police responded at Columbine: both groups are using the failed "perimeter" defense.  Let me explain.

When the police arrived after hearing reports of a massacre under way inside Columbine High School, they did not storm the building to catch the criminals.  Instead, these heavily armed officers, wearing their famous coalscuttle helmets, surrounded the outside of the school, "sealing the perimeter," according to their spokesmen.

Inside the high school, Eric Harris and Dylan Kliebold were running freely through the halls, merrily killing and wounding unarmed teachers and students as they tried to escape.  In the end, the police didn’t even have to fire a shot, as the two miscreants ended their own lives.  Thus, people were treated to a worthless show of force by the authorities, which did almost nothing to save anyone caught in the building.

Lest one think this was an aberration, it is standard procedure by government forces.  Likewise, the government has mandated a "seal the perimeter" approach to preventing airline hijackings, and the carnage of September 11 bears witness to its effectiveness.  The government’s approach to "protecting" airline passengers violates laws of economics, not to mention common sense, and the results have been deadly.

The government basically has one line of defense at airports, that being "protection" of the "outer ring" before passengers arrive at the gates.  Dutifully following Federal Aviation Administration orders, ticket agents ask passengers the standard "Did you pack your bags?" question, as though a potential hijacker would answer, "No, Osama bin Laden packed them."

After waiting in a long line and checking his bags at the counter (which is now necessary, since the FAA has outlawed curbside check-in, despite the fact it poses no more danger to flyers than checking bags at the ticket counter), the passenger's next step is to travel through the metal detectors and the carry-on baggage X-ray.  Upon passing this requirement, the passenger is now within the "perimeter" and is supposedly a personal "weapons-free zone."  Everyone at that point is supposed to be "safe."

As we found out September 11, people were not safe—not the passengers, not the crew, and not the more than 5,000 people in New York and Washington who were about to lose their lives.  The government, through the FAA, had created a false sense of security, and innocent and trusting people paid with their lives.

Because the government is determined that all passengers are to be equally regarded as potential hijacking suspects, it requires that the exact same inspection procedures be followed on all who use air travel, regardless of their real risk to others.  This is very costly, both in time and in money, and is hugely inefficient, as it assigns the same marginal risk to each passenger despite the obvious differences in the actual threats they may impose.  Because the procedure is extremely costly, and because all passengers are treated equally, the only economical thing that airports can do is to check each person very quickly and superficially.

At the risk of being labeled a bigot, let us recall that Islamic militants who are either Arabs or Palestinians have committed the vast majority of hijackings and airline bombings.  We have no records of 65-year-old Southern Baptist ladies doing these deeds, yet all get the same treatment from the authorities.  As any competent economist can see, this is a recipe for disaster.

Furthermore, the only people who are ever disarmed by these screenings are people who had no plans of hijacking an airline, anyway.  Former Dallas Cowboys coach Barry Switzer once had a gun confiscated during one of these searches, but his alibi was quite solid: he had placed the gun in his bag after finding out that some children had seen it, and he simply forgot to take it out before he left.  

What this means is that once people are inside the supposedly secure "perimeter," the law-abiding people are then disarmed and helpless if a determined hijacker on a plane has managed to outwit the authorities.  In other words, the FAA mandates only one line of defense against hijackers, and that is almost totally ineffective in stopping potential air criminals.  As has already been pointed out, the FAA forbids pilots and crew to carry even rudimentary weapons of self-defense and permits only government agents to carry guns.

Granted, all of us who fly quietly submit to this idiocy, as though we somehow believe that by walking through metal detectors and having our bags X-rayed, all of us have been made safer.  I have even heard Americans say this past week that they will be willing to permit authorities to search them at will, because that will make them safer.

This is simply untrue.  An increase of intrusions by the federal government into our lives will make us less safe, not more.  Like the elderly couples at college football games who are searched as though they were potential terrorists, the vast majority of law-abiding people will receive the same protection from the authorities that the casualties of Columbine had from their local police units.

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William Anderson, an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute, teaches economics at Frostburg State University.  Send him MAIL.  See his Articles Archive