Safety Dance

Security is not only too expensive--it's impossible.


A bomb's concussion triggers a burst of adrenaline. The blast of destruction from sources unknown inspires the classic "fight or flight" syndrome. Primal instincts reign; reason gets shoved back.

That makes it all the more vital that people stifle their immediate animal instincts and think about the lessons to be taken from America's two most recent high-profile domestic explosions–TWA Flight 800 and the Atlanta Olympics–and what should (and can) be meaningfully done in reaction.

The fear that bombings engender gets tangled with other emotions that similarly make cold reasoning tough: rage that anyone could get away with such an act, grief over the victims. Fear, rage, and grief make a tough combination to argue against; but in calmer moments people should realize that important decisions oughtn't be made under their thrall. President Clinton and Congress should keep that in mind when they squabble over newer, tougher anti-terrorist measures in the future.

The need for a rational response becomes clearer when you realize that, as of this writing and the wave of firm commitment to do something sweeping Washington, it's still unclear what caused the TWA 800 disaster. Yet all the legal responses contemplated assume that the terrorist bomb hypothesis is an established fact.

Similarly, the Olympic bombing, while obviously intended to cause terror, may not be the type of organized political terrorism that the wiretap and RICO-expansion elements of Clinton's hoped-for anti-terrorist bill are aimed at. If it turns out to have been the twisted act of a nutty loner–and America is not lacking in nutty loners–none of the contemplated expansions of police power would have prevented it.

To many people the main stumbling blocks in congressional debate over the terrorism bill may not seem a big deal: the ability to do roving wiretaps on individuals instead of on specific phone lines; 48-hour emergency privilege to wiretap without a warrant; chemical taggants in commercial explosives; more government infiltrators in ideologically suspect organizations.

Consider, however: Clinton's administration is already the wiretappinest in American history yet TWA 800 and the Olympic bombing still happened. Chemical taggants can identify sources only to manufacturer and general lot number, not specific culprits. Infiltrators have been known to encourage ideological nuts to violence they wouldn't otherwise have committed (aside from the very troublesome implications of being targeted for government inspection under false pretenses just because of your beliefs).

The tough fact to face is that nothing–not "nothing short of totalitarianism," but really nothing–can reliably stop bombing attacks. We can pursue the chimerical goal of safety from bombs at great cost in freedom, in cash, in (much-maligned yet very important) convenience, but we will never, never achieve it.

Considering the easy availability of both material and knowledge to make bombs, and the prevalence of aggrieved humans, both here and abroad, it's quite remarkable that these attacks don't happen more often. The Unabomber has legions of ideological supporters; and whatever turns out to be the motive or gripe of the Olympic bomber (or the TWA bomber, if bomber it turns out to be), it's extremely unlikely he's alone in holding it. It's tough to combat the mighty motivators of fear, rage, and grief with something as reputedly cold and dismal as economics. Yet Americans need to think economically when contemplating responses to the recent bombings.

Cost-benefit analyses can seem heartless, but in fact there is almost no goal so important for which any measure is appropriate or called for–not even saving lives. "If it saves one life, it's worth it," is a mantra so oft repeated (in all sorts of regulatory matters, not just ones involving terrorism) that it almost seems the new national motto. Adding hours to every airport wait for more thorough bag checking? Yet the people checking the bags may well be the weakest security link, as a July 29 New York Times article points out. If people really thought hours of their time were worth a tiny chance of increased safety or longer life, no one would ever drive a car.

Having one's bags searched by cops whenever entering a public square or gathering? We have legal protections against giving cops unlimited ability to search citizens to protect privacy and liberty. Our freedom and yes, even our convenience, are precious treasures, not worth trading for the magic beans of safety. Valuing convenience over safety may sound lazy and thoughtless. But convenience means the ability to manage our only real resource–our time–in our own way, economizing it as we see fit.

Terrorists prey on our fear; the government preys on both fear and hope. Is it only the guilty who should fear a new wave of hysterically enacted anti-terrorist and public safety provisions? No, and the innocent don't have anything to hope for from them, either.