THE BOMBER WILL ALWAYS GET THROUGH

Stanley Baldwin, a leading British conservative of the early 20th Century and three-term Prime Minister, understood far earlier and better than his contemporaries how industrialization was changing the nature of war and conflict. The new development of the inter-War era, of course, was the airplane. Aviation moved the battlefield away from trenches and into cities. It de-compartmentalized nations, blurring the distinction between civilian and military and allowing for the first time the prospect of total war and the potential for total defeat. With the power to level cities and turn entire nations into rubble, aviation ensured that nations, not armies, would be defeated in future wars.

Baldwin understood this, and World War II was a graphic example of the ability of air power to turn defeat into total destruction. Accordingly, nations preoccupied themselves during the inter-War era with devising ways to defend against aerial bombing. France, Britain, Russia, Germany, and the other European nations with a millennium-long history of starting wars with one another every decade or so concocted intricate and expensive schemes to defend their skies. It was all folly, Baldwin warned. People should not develop a false sense of security based on military might and seemingly impregnable defenses. "I think it is well also for the man in the street to realize that there is no power on earth that can protect him from being bombed. Whatever people may tell him, the bomber will always get through." No matter how extensive the preparations or how fearsome one's military might be, enough of an attacking force will survive to inflict significant damage.

The PM's saying was relevant throughout the Cold War – didn't someone make perhaps the greatest film of all time about this very problem? – and it is even more so today despite the rapid obsolescence of nation-state conflicts. I thought about the Rt. Hon. Mr. Baldwin's words extensively on Christmas Day, the day on which, despite the dramatic increase in airport security since 2001, yet another person managed to carry an explosive on an airplane and come perilously close to using it for its intended purpose.

The reaction to the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253 has been predictably stupid – public shaming of the TSA (despite the fact that the flight originated far outside TSA jurisdiction), idiotic partisan fingerpointing (apparently this would never have happened if Bush was President, or Obama deserves blame for the failure of security policies instituted by his predecessor), and pointless speculation. Useless, all of it. The facts about airport security, like border security or air defenses, are deceptively simple. Someone will always get through.

I certainly think that airport security could be improved, and ironically I posted on the TSA's laziness on the morning of the incident. But let's not kid ourselves. All the metal detectors and X-ray machines and explosives detection equipment on the world won't stop people who want to blow up airplanes from blowing up airplanes. This is not to say that security is futile; certainly it can reduce the number of incidents. What it does very well is catch the complete knuckleheads – people with guns in their carry-ons or laughably bad fake identification. You know as well as I do, however, that someone with reasonable intelligence who commits him- or herself to the goal of blowing up an airplane can find a way to do it. No matter how good the security, people will find a way to defeat it. Maybe not a lot of people, but enough to spread the lingering fear that it can happen anytime. That's the goal of terrorism. That's why it's called "terrorism."

The gaps in our security are apparent to anyone who spends appreciable time in airports and cares to be observant while standing listlessly in a security checkpoint queue. But not even another dramatic improvement in security – "Total Body Imaging" scanners, for example – can eliminate the specter of terrorism. For the past eight years much of America has operated under the delusion that terrorism can be Defeated, that there will be a moment at which it stands on the deck of the USS Missouri and signs an instrument of surrender in deference to our military might. It is a pipe dream. There are six billion people on this planet and there is no way to prevent a small handful of them from deciding that it will be a good or useful idea to blow up a 747. And as long as the intent exists, that intent will occasionally intersect with means. I'm going to keep flying, as the odds of being on a plane when a terrorist blows it up are infinitely smaller than my chances of drowning in my bathtub (which are a comparatively terrifying 1 in 700,000). But while I'm at it I'll refrain from expecting airport security from stopping everyone or elected officials from magically "ending" terrorism. The bomber will always get through and punish someone – someone else, we all silently hope whenever we step on an airplane.

Be Sociable, Share!

19 Responses to “THE BOMBER WILL ALWAYS GET THROUGH”

  1. Prudence Says:

    Stupider still is the fact that many planes have had their in-flight entertainment disabled because the TSA has demanded that the flight tracker programme not work. Because a determined terrorist would not be able to glance out of a window, look at his/her watch, and, with the mathematical skillz of a nine year old, figure out where the plane is, approximately. Bitter, me? Well, a bit. I'm due to fly back to DC from London shortly, and I'm not looking fwd to the cavity search.

  2. Daniel Says:

    Sadly, many things in life are completely out of our hands. If some dickwad wants to go on a shooting spree in a public forum, chances are he or she is going to wing somebody. I'm fairly neurotic, but you can only worry about so much in your life. Growing up in Chicago, my mom had a neighbor several houses down who died when a small plane crashed into her house. There's only some much worrying and anxiety your brain can take before you lose all rational thinking and start worrying about falling out of your bed or dying of other freak occurrences.

  3. dotlizard Says:

    I've always been one to fear those odd, random ways of dying – chunk of blue ice (frozen used lavatory water falling off an airplane), meteorite, sudden sinkhole in the roadway, etc – having all these odd bizarre fears which I contemplate from time to time, the looming specter of terrorism hardly phases me.

    As far as deaths occurring to actual airline passengers, one is actually far more likely to fall victim to an incompetent mechanical safety inspector, a distracted pilot, or a greedy decision to skimp on some important aspect of airplane construction — and these things are still far less likely to happen than a common automobile accident.

    And I am absolutely not willing to spend the last hour of a flight sitting quietly with nothing in my lap or in my hands, unable to get out of my seat or do anything at all. That's torture, and I'm not willing to be tortured in the name of perhaps increasing my odds from 1 in ten million, to 1 in eleven million or whatever.

    So if you ever hear about a belligerent white woman being hauled off a plane by the TSA for refusing to stop playing spider solitaire on her cell phone, well, that'll be me.

  4. jon Says:

    But! But! The previous administration proved that doing something about events like this is popular and important and downright American! It's our patriotic duty to not use our electronic devices so we can't be blown up as we approach our landing. It's our new duty to be blown up in the middle of our flight when such things can be accessed at will. God Bless America, Jesus Loves Us, E Pluribus Unum, Yabba Dabba Doo, Drill Baby Drill!, Throw More Tea after Bad!

  5. comrade x Says:

    Me, I worry a hell of a lot more about ass cancer than dumbasses with delusions of glory who decide to check- out by blowing up airplanes. And why we are on the subject, why are these assclowns so fixated on airliners? Terrorists in the 1970s and 80s showed a lot more initiative and flexibility than these jihadi bastards- they would go after shops, ferrys, cruise ships, buses, you name it. Maybe because believing in that fundie Muslim shit requires zero ability in the brain department.

  6. John Says:

    This article touches on the basic nature of the world which some folks — those determined to fight this "War on Terrorâ„¢" to its conclusion a.k.a. infinity — simply don't grasp.

    It is impossible to destroy an idea.

    When Galileo started telling people that the Earth was not the center of the universe, they imprisoned him. They attempted to destroy the idea by destroying the man. They failed, and today we know the Sun to be the center of our solar system.

    Similarly, it is hysterical folly to believe that the concepts and ideas that drive Terrorismâ„¢ can be destroyed by simply "killing all the terrorists". We will never be able to completely remove the desire to commit such atrocities until we are able to control peoples' minds outright. The best we can hope to do is limit the means of accomplishing such, but even that, as Ed so eloquently puts, is an inevitable failure. Better simply to improve safety countermeasures and response systems to such events.

    What a depressing shame that our foreign policy is entirely built around fighting the fabled Unlimited Wars to accomplish a completely untouchable goal.

  7. Pan Sapiens Says:

    If I were a terrorist intent, the post-911 Unlimited War response would have been beyond my most hopeful expectations.

  8. Ryan Says:

    I'd like to point out (pedantic though I may be) that Russia as an independent country didn't exist during the interwar years. Just saying.

  9. Pan Sapiens Says:

    @John: "Better simply to improve safety countermeasures and response systems to such events"

    Nah. Better to return to get rid of security theater in its entirety.

    "We can project indomitability by rolling back all the fear-based post-9/11 security measures. Our leaders have lost credibility; getting it back requires a decrease in hyperbole. Ditch the invasive mass surveillance systems and new police state-like powers. Return airport security to pre-9/11 levels. Remove swagger from our foreign policies. Show the world that our legal system is up to the challenge of terrorism. Stop telling people to report all suspicious activity; it does little but make us suspicious of each other, increasing both fear and helplessness."

    http://www.schneier.com/essay-292.html

  10. Nan Says:

    The talking heads pushing the high tech solutions and increased screening ignore several basic facts. First, as noted above, it's impossible to kill an idea.

    Second, as I read somewhere (and would cite the source, if I could remember who said it), slingshots are cheap and rocks are free. The 9/11 terrorists were armed with ideology and box cutters. They could have just as easily been armed with ballpoint pens or nothing at all — a determined fanatic can turn anything into a weapon.

    My own feeling is that every time we react with panic and hyperbole, the bad guys (whoever they may be) just won another round.

  11. Comrade PhysioProf Says:

    Better simply to improve safety countermeasures and response systems to such events.

    Even better than that would be to give serious consideration to the fact that *our* actions as the biggest imperial military power on Earth have a massive influence on the *desire* of wackaloon nutjobs to blow themselves to smithereens while taking out one of our civilian aircraft. Of course, this consideration is absolute taboo in our depraved and toxic political culture because ARE YOU SAYING AMERKUH *DESERVES* TO BE ATTACKED??!?!?!?!!111!!!1!!!!???!!?!?!???TREASON!!1!!1!!TRAIOTR!!!1!!!ELEVNTYY!!111!!!

  12. comrade x Says:

    Even worse is the bullshit that we have to protect " American Interests". Well, I'm not the president of some suckass energy company, nor am I a defense industry CEO. I really doubt blowing away wedding parties in the Middle East serves my interests at all, Pres. Obama.

  13. Sarah Says:

    I say the next security measure they're going to implement is to shackle all passengers to their seats for the duration of their flights.

  14. Crazy for Planet Ronald Raygun Says:

    Ed you have just articulated my thoughts precisely. I just heard on the news that there have been 10 million flights (or was it passengers?) since 9/11/2001 – that seems like pretty good odds to me! Lets not forget, both this guy and the "shoe bomber" failed out of their own incompetence, you can sit in the airplane bathroom as long as you want to light something off with total privacy. The bottom line is no one can do anything about terrorism…

  15. displaced Capitalist Says:

    Ed said:

    drowning in my bathtub (which are a comparatively terrifying 1 in 700,000

    Wait, WHAT!? OH SH1T!!!! I AM NEVER BATRHING AGIN!!!!111

  16. Batocchio Says:

    Great line there. I don't understand the constant pants-crapping over this. Security should be smartly and competently handled, but of course there will be flaws or breakdowns. Nate Silver wrote a good post on the ridiculous odds against being in a terrorist attack on a plane.

  17. lenny Says:

    I absolutely agree that you can not kill and idea… that is why we need to address why they want to cause us harm. If you take a long hard look, you will see it has been our systematic interference with governments and regimes, CIA driven exploits, hording of other people's resources, and occupation of foreign countries that put a target on our back. Now, I'm not saying that we are entirely to blame for the situation we are in, for their are radical ideologies that will never find peace until all but the "holy" are wiped out… but I am saying that we are not just innocent victims.

    terrorism war on terror

  18. Andrea Says:

    Sent over by C&L. I love your writing and your commenters – I want dotlizard to be my new best friend.

  19. Larkspur Says:

    You're right. A bomber WILL always get through. The only tactic that can possibly mitigate the danger is what Bush/Cheney et al. specifically rejected: good police work, good informants, and enough employees to read all the data we are already able to gather. We need to re-hire many of the people forced out of government and the military because they were applying their brains to the problem instead of saying what their supervisors wanted them to say. We might also want to hire back all the talented, experienced, invaluable people who got trashed for being gay.

    BTW, not surprisingly, your post reminds me of "Fail-Safe", the 1964 "what if" movie that remains oddly compelling even today, despite its basically simplistic premise.