It took only a few hours after reports emerged of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt at blowing up a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day for Internet wags to start making light of the incident, calling Abdulmutallab the “crotchbomber,” the “jockstrap jihadi,” and a member of the terrorist “brotherhood of the travelling pants.”
Soon after, U.S. officials hit upon what must count as one of the greatest innovations in public security in years: mockery. Would-be suicide bombers now know that if they try, but screw up, their scorched underwear will be paraded before cameras for all to laugh at. Add that to the indignity of having your sad I’m-so-lonesome-I-could-die online ramblings read aloud on air by attractive young news anchors, and it makes you wonder why anyone would sign up for this terror business in the first place.
Why, you’d have to be stupid. For aspiring terrorists though, it would appear that being remarkably stupid is something close to a job requirement. The classic case is the Fort Dix six—a group of Islamic radicals who plotted to attack the U.S. army base in New Jersey in 2007. But first they made a DVD of themselves firing weapons and yelling “Allah Akbar,” and it all went sideways when they took the DVD in to Circuit City to be copied; they were promptly ratted out to the authorities by staff.
As early as 2005, it seemed as though most of the capable and intelligent terrorists had already blown themselves up in successful attacks, been killed by coalition forces, or were in hiding. Daniel Pipes was so inspired by the parade of idiocy, he opened his “Stupid Terrorists Club,” which was a constantly updated list of wannabe jihadis whose missions were foiled not by crack security work, but by their own ineptitude.
In fact, the only serious rival to terrorist stupidity is our system’s failure to catch it—and our official reaction to it when it happens. With typical sobriety, the U.S. Transport Security Administration responded to Abdulmutallab’s scorched-crotch tactics by immediately issuing a new set of regulations (eventually scaled back somewhat) that required full pat-downs at airport security, forbade pilots from telling passengers where exactly the plane was, and forced passengers to sit in their seats for the last hour of flight while banning them from holding a blanket on their lap or accessing carry-on baggage.
All of which had the predictable effect of creating chaos on the ground and engineering a climate of suspicion and fear among tired, anxious travellers. Two days after Abdulmutallab’s failure, a Nigerian businessman took ill on the same Amsterdam-Detroit flight and had to spend long stretches in the airplane’s washroom. We’ve all been there, but this time edgy flight crews decided—in what was likely a case of hysteria-induced racial profiling—he was being “unruly” and radioed ahead for security teams. When they landed, he was led off in handcuffs while his fellow travellers sat for hours as their luggage was tossed out on the tarmac to be inspected.
All of this security theatre would be worth it if any of it promised to make us even marginally safer, but you won’t find many independent analysts or experts who think it will. Bruce Scheier, a security consultant and the self-appointed scourge of the TSA, denounced the bovinely reactive character of the agency’s response this way: “It’s like saying the terrorist wore a green shirt, so no more green shirts.” Scheier has claimed for years that only two things have made flying safer since 9/11: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers now know that they are ultimately responsible for resisting hijackers.
The truth is, the odds of getting killed by a terrorist attack on an airplane are minuscule. Drawing on figures put together by stats whiz Nate Silver, the website Gizmodo posted a chart listing the total number of commercial flights between 1999 and 2009 (almost 100 million), the total number of passengers (over seven billion), and the total number of passengers killed in the four successful attacks (647). Add it all up, and the odds of being a victim of in-flight terrorism are about the same as winning the lottery.
Of course, all the math in the world doesn’t change the fact that Abdulmutallab might have succeeded, and there may be more like him out there. Why wasn’t he put on the U.S. no-fly list? How could he have got through security? The narrow answer is that the system failed. It turns out that the CIA had met with Abdulmutallab’s father to discuss his son’s increasing radicalization, and that there were credible intelligence reports about a “Nigerian” being prepared for a terror attack.
The broader answer is, there are people out there who want to kill us, and there is only so much an open society of fallible people can do to stop them. We can try our hardest to identify threats and minimize risk, but every now and then someone is going to succeed in killing a handful of members of our civilization.
As a result of the crotch-bomber’s efforts, more suspicious people will now find themselves on no-fly lists, the U.S. will probably drop some bombs on al-Qaeda bases in Yemen, and international air travel will become an even more undignified endeavour. Will it make us any safer? Not much. In the end, the main reason there are so few successful terrorist attacks is that blowing up a plane is already pretty hard, and most terrorists aren’t that smart.
Looking for more?
Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.