COLUMN: Are our national security expectations reasonable — or realistic?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010 | 11:21 a.m. CST; updated 3:50 p.m. CST, Tuesday, January 19, 2010

When I flew home from St. Louis to Baltimore Washington International Airport in November, I couldn't help but be amused by my airport security experience.

After retrieving my shoes, watch, belt, hat, wallet, cell phone, coat, toothpaste, cologne, laptop and two carry-on bags from the security bins, I put myself back together, repacked my belongings and headed down the terminal. Considering the process, I chuckled thinking about the razor sharp knife I had still managed to accidentally sneak through security.

To be fair, the security guards at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport had done their job — or at least half of it. There were actually two knives that I had forgotten about. (I swear I’m not a serial killer.) When my bag got flagged going through the X-ray machine, I had no idea why. Then the guard found my Leatherman. After that, I was sure he would find the separate utility knife also in the bag, but he had already quit looking.

Point being, I had one bag searched, one knife discovered, and I still got a potentially lethal weapon through airport security without even trying. So I wasn’t shocked when I read about the nearly successful terrorist attack on a Northwest Airlines flight Christmas Day.

In the wake of this sobering incident, politicians and pundits have had a field day, and in the media, the story appears to have more angles than a game of pool. Interestingly enough, with all this discussion, there has been one underlying assumption: We must develop an ironclad way to prevent a successful terrorist attack on American soil.. Is this expectation reasonable — or even realistic?

Before anyone gets up in arms, hear me out. Of course any loss of innocent lives is tragic, and we should do everything we can to prevent such an occurrence. This means not only fixing the “systemic” problems in our security but also developing a defense that is more proactive than reactionary. But let’s not forget that we are engaged in two wars, and we are the targets of religious extremists who are highly motivated and well coordinated.

There is no question that the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and his exploding undies could have been prevented. As we have learned, there were multiple failures involving multiples agencies. Communication wasn’t just lacking; it was nonexistent.

Yet, even if these mistakes are corrected, lapses in security will happen so long as humans are part of the equation. Technology and intelligence are only as effective as the people using them.  My knife is just a scaled-down (albeit a much less disastrous) example.

Without getting into the politics of it all, let’s be honest. We’ve had a pretty good run since 9/11. There has yet to be a successful large-scale terrorist attack on American soil in almost 10 years. On our own or in concert with other countries, we have uncovered and foiled plots of varying magnitudes.

Still, none of this will matter if just one attempt proves successful. Unfortunately, given the scope and breadth of security needed to effectively protect all of America (not just its airplanes and airports) and the tenacity of our enemies, this outcome seems almost inevitable. We were just lucky this time.

The Transportation Security Administration’s reaction to the foiled attack has been to institute a new level of security for passengers on international flights who are citizens of or passing through one of 14 “countries of interest.”  These heightened international precautions still won’t guarantee 100 percent safety. Heck, some airports aren’t even abiding by these new regulations. 

The likelihood of fending off every possible threat decreases further if we take a look at our own homeland. As has been evident recently, the religious extremism we are battling overseas is beginning to find roots in the states. According to a New York Times Magazine article, the threat of “a new generation of homegrown extremists” is a mounting concern.

“Although no one wants to admit it, I think a watershed has been crossed in the terrorist threat in the United States,” Bruce Hoffman, a Georgetown University terrorism scholar, told the Times’ Peter Barker.

Taking into account all of these factors, our perception of what is acceptable might not fall in line with what is probable. Not only does this mentality create false expectations, but it adds fuel to the fire. Because of one incident, we are now having a national conversation over the complete failure of our intelligence and security systems. Although they certainly need an overhaul, this is somewhat extreme and only encourages future terrorist attempts.

Without question, we should strive for perfection when it comes to matters of national security, but demanding perfection detracts from our successes and only highlights our weaknesses. 

Andrew Del-Colle is the arts editor for Vox Magazine and a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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