The Realities of the One

Christmas Day’s near miss terror attack on a Northwest Airlines flight headed to Detroit was arguably thwarted mostly by good luck. The would-be suicide bomber’s detonator failed. The quick thinking passengers then acted to subdue the man before he had a chance to fix the faulty bomb.

The news cycle is now in full-on scare mode. Everyone is calling for investigations on how the man could have been allowed on the plane. Looking into the man’s history, someone should have known he was dangerous. TSA is introducing new security regulations mostly intended to make us feel safer when we fly. And Republicans are positioning this as a failure of Obama’s national security policy.

Very little is being said about the realities of preventing a random single attacker. This guy, even in retrospect, was relatively low risk. Looked at another way, there are hundreds of thousands of people around the planet that are of a similar risk level as this guy was. And those are just the people we are aware of. The number probably climbs into the millions if we could truly analyze everyone’s behavior. There’s no practical way to track and monitor all of these people.

But even so, shouldn’t he have been prevented from getting on the plane? At what cost? There are no magic detectors for passengers headed onto planes. Short of requiring that we all fly naked with no luggage or carry-ons and remain in our seats throughout the flight, there will always be some risk that someone will slip through. And even if we managed to make the planes safe, trying to provide similar security measures to every gathering of a few hundred people would be prohibitive. We just squeeze the balloon. Make the planes safe, and the terrorists will move to shopping malls, movies theaters, trains, or some other venue.

The simple reality is that while reasonable precautions are certainly in order, and we should all be vigilant against emerging threats, none of us is ever guaranteed to be 100% safe. Sometimes we get through the day simply because we weren’t in the wrong place at the wrong time. We didn’t die in a traffic accident, we didn’t fall in the tub, we weren’t on the flight with the mechanical failure, and we weren’t walking on the sidewalk near where the car-bomb went off.

I’m elated that guy’s bomb failed. But I’m unwilling to let the fact that he tried drive me into a sense of fear about flying or other terrorist attacks. Every time we succumb to that fear, the terrorists actually win, whether they killed anyone or not. We can’t allow their effort alone to be a success.

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