3 August 2004

BOB on Board

However: if we are to expect airplane captains and flight attendants to make important security decisions, they need to be properly trained. The flight attendant who discovered the airsickness bag didn't react from reason, but from fear. And that fear was transferred to the captain, who made a bad decision.

Fear won't make anyone more secure. It causes overreactions to false alarms. It entices us to spend ever-increasing amounts of money, and give away ever-increasing civil liberties, while receiving no security in return. It blinds us to the real threats.

Speaking about the person who wrote those three fateful letters on the airsickness bag, Transport Minister John Anderson called him 'irresponsible at the least and horrendously selfish and stupid at the worst.' Irresponsible for what? For writing his name? For perpetuating common flight-attendant slang? It wasn't the writer who did anything wrong; it was those who reacted to the writing.

We live in scary times, and it's easy to let fear overtake our powers of reason. But precisely because these are scary times, it's important that we not let them.

Prime Minister John Howard praised the crew for their quick reactions, diligence, and observation skills. I'm sorry, but I see no evidence of any of that. All I see are people who have been thrust into an important security role reacting from fear, because they have not been properly trained in how to sensibly evaluate security situations: the risks, the countermeasures, and the trade-offs. Were cooler and more sensible heads in the cockpit, this story would have had a different ending.

Unfortunately, fear begets more fear, and creates a climate where we terrorise ourselves. Now every wacko in the world knows that all he needs to do to ground an international flight is to write 'BOB' on an airsickness bag. Somehow, I don't think that's the outcome any of us wanted.

The response, especially by Anderson and Howard, is about avoiding blame for future events.

Back in 1973, Mossad, the Israeli security service, adopted The Concept, by which they persuaded themselves Egypt would never attack until it had gained parity in fighters and pilots. This was not expected until 1975. Safe in the Concept , Mossad ignored signs of the Egyptian/Syrian military buildup on its borders. They also ignored a last minute warning from King Hussein of Jordan. Mossad has since devoted considerable resources to not getting caught out again. Their intelligence assessments now always veer towards the red zone.

Stalin rejected ample warning of the German invasion, including warnings from his own spymaster in Tokyo, Richard Sorge.

Human intelligence on al-Qaida is nonexistent. Signal intelligence and measurement/signature intelligence really do not work well. A politico trying to avoid getting caught out may not stop an attack but they can adopt effective strategies to escape blame.

Staying hyperalert and hyperalarmed all the time is not going to achieve much in the way of repelling terrorists. The military experience is that the worst thing you can do to a force-in-being is trying to keep it action-ready at all times. But it does let the prime minister say: "I told you so.'

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