Liquids on a Plane!

Ah compatriots, rejoice! Breathe the fresh air of freedom: The government is now letting us take liquids on-board airplanes.

Alas, hold the “praise be.” Although the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has dropped its blanket ban, conscientious travelers ought to be careful, lest they aid the terrorists. Stay away from those dangerous regular bottles of shampoo, toothpaste, and suntan lotion; these items are still verboten. And remember to avoid containers bigger than three ounces, plastic bags larger than a quart, and all bags without a zip top.

But let us cherish our newfound liberty. Surely only the most nitpicky among us would ask, “Why have the bans been lifted?” And the truly pedantic, “Has the terrorist threat receded; have plots been uncovered and networks unraveled?”

Unfortunately, the answer is: not exactly. The only evident change is that last Monday, the TSA decreed that the outright ban was not needed anymore. It gave no notice for what differentiated this Monday from the day before, the subsequent Tuesday, or the previous Monday. No government announcements, portentous comets, or other such celestial auguries.

Perhaps—gasp—the bans were never needed?

Politicians in the U.S. and U.K. reacted to the alleged London plot with a mixture of hysteria and grandstanding. Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff ’75, HLS ’78 practically broke down in tears: “Very seldom do things get to me. This one has really gotten to me.” And, as a “close the barn door” policy, the government immediately imposed draconian restrictions on U.S.-U.K. flights, which they have only gradually loosened.

As many have noted, liquids are not a new threat. Terrorists have tried to use liquid explosives for almost two decades, with only one notable success (in 1987, North Korean agents blew up a South Korean airplane). But as Time magazine notes, of the roughly 2,000 bombs planted on U.S. territory every year, almost none are liquid explosives. Six months ago the TSA itself stated, “While random items commonly found under a kitchen sink could conceivably be concocted into an IED [improvised explosive device], there are so many things that could go wrong with this hypothetical scenario that we find it highly implausible.”

Why? Because liquid explosives are extremely volatile—simple friction can be enough to set them off—and very dangerous even in a steady laboratory setting. An attempt to combine liquid explosives in a bouncy airplane is likely to cause a prematurely explosion, inducing damage but not enough “bang” to blow the plane. Furthermore, mixing components on board, as the London suspects allegedly planned to do, produces a noxious smell that any half-witted air steward would notice.

Given the low probability of a liquid bombing and the difficulty of detecting a liquid explosive—it could be anything from Jello to a gel pen—banning liquids simply doesn’t pass a rational cost-benefit analysis.

The only effective means for guarding against liquid explosives, banning all non-essential carry-on items, is a massive inconvenience and a logistical nightmare. Certainly, the risk of liquid explosions will be almost completely eliminated, but at what cost? When the U.K. sharply limited carry-on items in the immediate wake of the August plot, roughly 20,000 bags were lost at Heathrow.

Meanwhile, under the TSA’s new half-hearted limitation, terrorists can be sure that they will probably succeed at sneaking liquids on-board anyway. Screeners conduct full bag searches on less than one out of four passengers, and they are unlikely to distinguish a three-ounce from a five-ounce bottle. Moreover, the time that they spend ferreting out that dastardly four-ounce container (a full ounce over the limit!) detracts from the time they can spend looking for real threats.

But because politicians and bureaucrats don’t pay the price for their policies, they have no incentive to employ cost-effective security strategies; quite the opposite, people presume that if a policy is authoritarian and inconvenient, it must make us safer. So the political calculus is to take any step that could, just maybe, improve security, no matter what the cost.

Thus, step by step, travelers have been subjected to ever more intrusive searches, interrogations, and general hassle. The security ratchet tightens over time and the costs, in terms of individual liberty, convenience, and taxes (over $17 million per day for the TSA alone), only rise. Even though the British didn’t catch the August 10 would-be bombers by confiscating their toothpaste—it took months of old-fashioned gumshoe detective work—the day heralded a new set of irrational security restrictions. Our shoeless security circus, where minimally qualified federal screeners leer at passengers and seize fruit blenders, only grows more absurd.

We’re not even sacrificing our liberty (and dignity) for substantive security improvements—it’s just a PR show. Both the General Accounting Office and the Department of Homeland Security have concluded that the TSA’s screening is no more secure than the private pre-9/11 practices. Is anyone surprised that confiscating lighters (30,000 a day), small pointy objects (those dangerous cuticle clippers), and not-so-sharp objects (frying pans, toy robots) does nothing?

Created in a post-9/11 panic—quick, someone do something!—it took less than a year for the TSA to be branded a “monster” by the chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee, John Mica (R-Fla.). But until voters and politicians treat the threat of terrorism rationally, accepting certain risks and recognizing that some preventative measures are too costly, the TSA will neither guard our security nor our liberty.

So next time you pass through Logan, hand over your deodorant. But, remember, you’re more likely to be killed by your appendix than Al-Qaeda.



Piotr C. Brzezinski ’07, a Crimson associate editorial chair, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House.