Foreign Policy

Just Say No to Airport Paranoia

What the attempted bombing of Flight 253 says about the al-Qaeda threat

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If we accept the premise that the naughty Nigerian on Flight 253 had 80 grams of pentaerythritol tetranitrate sewn into his underwear, it follows that the energy released by its efficient explosion could, at most, have amounted to one or two megajoules. That's roughly the heat of combustion of a jelly doughnut.

If that much energy were released instantaneously, the 80 gram fireball in the villain's briefs would have reduced his midriff to hamburger. But that didn't happen. Instead, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab got a firecracker-sized bang and some richly deserved second-degree burns. Which means the explosion of the powdery un-plasticized charge did not propagate. (One presumes that the bomb's designer incorrectly hoped the first bit would set off the rest.)

But even if it had worked correctly, the energy released would have been distributed through the expansion of 80 grams of hot gas. Think of it as an air bag gone wild, or a shrapnel-free hand grenade, driven by what amounts to rather less than a 10th of a cubic meter of air at room temperature. The radius of explosive destruction would have extended to a meter or so at most.

Had the detonating dervish hugged the metal wall of the wide body jet, he might have punched a foot wide hole in it, and the resulting explosive decompression could have brought about another Lockerbie. In response, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has banned late-flight restroom access. But even if the device had gone off in a restroom, the resulting closed-door thunder box explosion—though guaranteed to make hash of the bomber and anyone or anything directly across the aisle—would have been unlikely to rupture the hull several meters away (the shattering effect of an expanding, and thus cooling, explosion is an inverse-radius-squared sort of thing).

So why was the bomber packing so modest an explosive charge? My guess is that anything upwards of 100 grams invites detection nowadays by any number of security devices, not all of which civilians need to know about. Good thing, too. If al-Qaeda's idea of an existential threat is a befuddled young man with three ounces of not-so-high explosives sewn into his underwear, weapons of mass destruction aren't what they used to be.

Still, reflecting on the cold utilitarian calculus of how may lifetimes are being wasted standing in line, or how many lives may be lost to deep thrombosis per zillion immobile passenger miles if the TSA nincompoops are given free rein, I counsel an immediate escalation of the Global War on Terror.

Why begrudge Gen. Stanley McChrystal 40,000 extra pairs of hands to deal with the life-shattering daily threat of IED's and car bombs in Afghanistan, when we have 100,000 men and women in uniform—or at least TSA blazers— trained at the taxpayer's expense in the dark arts of explosive detection standing guard at the nation's airports against a threat that has proven largely psychological?  

The threat that merits constant vigilance is not an 80 gram explosive charge, but a jumbo jet that morphs into an 80 ton flying bomb. Why not deputize the top 10 percent of the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) standby army as air marshals to help deter a repeat of the 9-11 hijackings, and send the remainder abroad as America's Foreign Transportation Security Legion?

Or we could just let DHS Director Janet Napolitano and her lot take their chances, and we'll take ours. Outside of landing a blockbuster bomb in Osama bin Laden's lap, what better way to ruin his happy new year than by resolutely ignoring the shoddy antics of his hapless minions? At the end of the day, airline passengers still have al-Qaeda's mile high club outnumbered a million to one, and if we just say no to airport paranoia, the odds of perishing in the air will still remain about as low as those of going up in flames with the Christmas pudding.

Defiance is a dish best served cold, and in this case the right technology for detecting small explosive charges has been on open offer since 2007 in the form of a terahertz bomb detection scanner.

As with medical imaging, the sensitivity and resolution of this technology is rising almost as fast as Moore's Law. If only the smart folks at DHS had used their powers of intrusion to inflict this sort of transparency on wannabe bombers years ago.

Russell Seitz, formerly of Harvard's Center For International Affairs, is now a Fellow in Harvard's Department of Physics.

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  1. I got to see what Peter North has in his underwear. Boom – all over me!

  2. “just say no to airport paranoia”

    Wrong. People want to feel in control. And there’s no greater sense of control one can have than to begrudgingly place ones safety in the hands of a sporadically inept federal agency.

  3. two megajoules. That’s roughly the heat of combustion of a jelly doughnut.

    This is idiotic. It’s not the total amount of energy, it’s the rate at which it is liberated. For an explosion lasting 0.01 seconds (a fairly slow explosion), the release 2MJ of energy is equivalent to 200MW of power. 1MW is enough to power about 800 homes in the U.S.

    While no one would make the claim that a jelly donut is a dangerous explosive, that is more a result of the fact that the donut is designed to release its energy much more slowly than explosives are.

    (It is possible to get a jelly donut to release its energy really fast, but it generally requires a piece of lab equipment known as a “bomb calorimeter.” And you sure wouldn’t want to use the whole jelly donut in one.)

    1. Peter North’s member exploded with 2 megajisms. And they are calorie free!

    2. I’d think that, fundamentally, what matters is the amount of energy contained in the explosive. The explosive can only do its work of pushing apart the airplane if it releases a large amount of energy, after all.

      Now, all else being equal, you’d prefer a faster explosive to a slow one. Well, you would probably prefer to eat the donut, fatass.

      1. This is true. The timescale of the explosion itself is so small that it is negligible. The only relevant quantity is the energy released. Talking about the “power” of the explosion doesn’t make any sense because it’s not a continuous release of energy.


    3. but it generally requires a piece of lab equipment known as a “bomb calorimeter.”

      ooh ooh! where can i get one?

      1. If you really want one, probable fisher scientific is the place to start.

      2. Take a Styrofoam cup. Stick a thermometer into the top. Detonate a bomb inside the cup while standing next to it.

    4. Is the jelly doughnut a Berliner?

      1. hahahaha

  4. OK, so the author makes the point as well that the rate of detonation is important. 80 grams of gas expanding at a sufficient rate can certainly do serious damage. I guess the point is more that ineptitude, rather than lack of explosive energy, was the deciding factor in saving the day here.

  5. I have a weapon of mass destruction….in my pants.

    1. So does Peter North. His Fruit of the Loom holds a bg banana!

      1. Yes, we get, it rctL is gay. Move on to the next joke please.

        1. heller, I thought you and I had the corner on the market for taking on rctL. Also, isn’t rctL female so the joke isn’t even funny? Just sayin’…

  6. This is why I read Reason.

    1. Then you’ll enjoy Jezebel, too.

  7. The only way to defy airport security is to not fly. Over the holidays we in new Mexico USA were told we’d need a passport to get on a domestic flight starting the first of the year (now postponed) because our state doesn’t have Real ID driver’s licenses. I decided then that my trio to California would be my last domestic flight. Now the Underwear Bomber-triggered regulations have hardened that resolve. Time to gas up the car and get my Trip-Tik.

  8. Is the jelly doughnut a Berliner?

    Fucking Commies, and their deadly weapons of mass destruction.

  9. Every time somebody brings up “explosive decompression, I’m going to link to Aloha Airlines flight 243.

    1. I always think of Goldfinger getting sucked out that window.

  10. Kennedy tried to warn us about the exploding jelly doughnut menace, but people kept trying to distort what he said (“No, no, that is a correct way of saying ‘I am a resident of Berlin'”). And, shortly thereafter, the commie exploding doughnut cabal got to him.

  11. The last analysis I read on Pan Am was many years ago. But the gist of it was that the hole created by the bomb would not normally have resulted in catestrophic hull loss, except the aircraft was experiencing a strong shift in the cross wind at the time.

    I have read nothing from anyone in authority yet beyond: 80 grams of pentaerythritol tetranitrate “may” have been sufficient to blow a small hole in the hull which “could” have resulted in loss of aircraft. I am highly skeptical at this point.

  12. The bomb didn’t need to breach the hull, only to breach the pathways for flight control hardware and wiring under the seat, a-la Philippine Airlines Flight 434.

    1. Without taking the time to google it, the A330 is a modern fly-by-wire system which I believe is quadrupple redundant. There is no way that all the redundant channels pass below a single seat in the cabin.

      1. Your faith in your fellow engineers is touching. I certainly hope there’s not a single point of access for a quadruple redundant system, but I wouldn’t be 100% positive there isn’t without a schematic. People make mistakes in design.

        1. But the odds that someone will discover the achilles heel of a quadruple-redundant aircraft (that could be substituted without notice anyway) and exploit that is next to nothing.

          If terrorists (suddenly aerospace design experts) are now in the business of predicting what particular seat of what particular make and model of aircraft they are going to ride, it is going to be a long trip to paradise.

        2. The OEM have been planning for bombers since at least the 80’s.

          The design of fly-by-wire systems start with the premise that a major explosion must not disable the flight controls.

          The design is reviewed intensely by the people that build the flight control system, the people that build the airplane, and the regulatory authorities that certify the airplanes.

          I have complete confidence that a single bomb cannot disable the flight controls on a new fly-by-wire aircraft.

          1. I’ll buy that. I know fuck-all about aircraft design. I’ve just seen some… interesting screw-ups that should have been caught a lot earlier in the process than final manufacture.

            1. No doubt there are lots of “why the fuck did it do that” during initial integration and testing.

              But designing data path segration for bomb blast protection isn’t all that complicated. One wire goes down one side of the aircraft, and the other goes down the other side thirty feet away.

  13. How about a gelignite doughnut?

  14. Well the problem is the TSA is a freakin JOKE. The TSA is the biggest WASTE of an agency there is.

    RT
    http://www.web-privacy.se.tc

  15. If terrorists (suddenly aerospace design experts) are now in the business of predicting what particular seat of what particular make and model of aircraft they are going to ride,

    If you show up at the counter and specifically ask to be assigned “the magic seat” you should probably expect to be put on some kind of a list.

  16. I have complete confidence that a single bomb cannot disable the flight controls on a new fly-by-wire aircraft.

    Can you say, “Redundant?”

  17. I find it remarkable that seemingly reasonable people are content to take the bull dished out by the TSA. Airport security is a joke! It is not intended to stop a bomb or any other device carried by a competent terrorist, particularly with national resources. The only role of the TSA is to make your lives as inconvient as possible to make you have a sense that they are doing something. With the new WBI the situation gets worse. This device is a radiation source and will be harmfull to your health. Imagine a pregunant woman expose to such a device and the ill consequences. Can it stop a terrorist? Absolutley not. My son (17) and I sat and thought of a number of scenerios to get any device on a plane if one desired. Now closely watching Muslims and directing our war to that religion might have an influence.

  18. The Mythbusters actually blew up a scrap airplane to test these theories. A bullet hole just leaks air. An entire blown window is nasty as all the pressure escapes, but the damage was contained. To actually wreck the airplane required an explosive charge on one of the reinforcing ribs of the airframe.

  19. Nice going Dr. Seitz: The TSA will likely now ban jelly donuts on your theory that they contain as much energy as the undie bomb.

  20. In theory they already have, unless you remove the less than four ounces of jelly from th dounut and present it for inspection in a plastic bag

  21. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on…the Bible’s books were written by people with very different mindsets…in order to really get the Books of the Bible, you have to cultivate such a mindset, it’s literally a labyrinth, that’s no joke.

  22. My only point is that if you take the Bible straight, as I’m sure many of Reasons readers do, you will see a lot of the Old Testament stuff as absolutely insane. Even some cursory knowledge of Hebrew and doing some mathematics and logic will tell you that you really won’t get the full deal by just doing regular skill english reading for those books. In other words, there’s more to the books of the Bible than most will ever grasp. I’m not concerned that Mr. Crumb will go to hell or anything crazy like that! It’s just that he, like many types of religionists, seems to take it literally, take it straight…the Bible’s books were not written by straight laced divinity students in 3 piece suits who white wash religious beliefs as if God made them with clothes on

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  25. Come Cathy. You can’t confuse someone like Rosin with facts. I am suprised the woman can tie her shoes. If you have ever read her writing on child raising, you can only hope there is a God who will help her poor children get through life with a woman whose stupidity is exceeded only by her neurosis and self centeredness.

  26. great stuff, thanks for posting!

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