Terrorists win when paranoia runs deep
By James Alan Fox
Steptember 11, 2006

“Never let ’em see you sweat” has long been sage advice for facing one’s challenges and tormentors.

I recall from my own childhood wanting to wear a football helmet to school after having been punched in the mouth by the class bully. My dad wisely suggested I pretend instead that I wasn’t afraid, and the strategy worked.

This “you don’t scare me one bit” attitude can also be an effective approach for Americans confronting the menace of terrorism in the post-9/11 era. Terrorists may want us dead, but they want more to make us suffer and surrender the freedoms and lifestyle we cherish. They enjoy our fear-inspired responses to every one of their actions and threats.

Because box cutters were used during 9/11, we banned tweezers and other sharp instruments (though not ballpoint pens) from airline travel. We “recommended” that passengers remove their footwear for X-raying after Richard Reid’s unsuccessful attempt to detonate a shoe bomb. And, of course, liquids are now suspect since the thwarted plan of London-based conspirators.

All these restrictions have accomplished is to lend new meaning to the “lines” in “airlines.” The security-related hassles would be tolerable if they truly made us safer. However, as the Department of Homeland Security and the Government Accountability Office concluded last year, our airports are no safer than before 9/11.

We have invested billions on airport security. “After 9/11,” noted Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, “we had to show how committed we were by spending hugely greater amounts of money than ever before, as rapidly as possible.” And, according to passenger surveys conducted by the often-criticized Transportation Security Administration, most do feel relatively safe as a result.

But it’s a false sense of security. If terrorists were determined to attack, they could do so - if not through air travel, then through our water and food supplies, our seaports and elsewhere. Yet, the always-one-step-behind security measures, which do little more than inconvenience us, must delight our enemies.

Some people claim that security is woefully inadequate to prevent another major attack on America, and that we must ratchet operations up to the levels found in Israel. I agree with the former, but not the latter. Most visible security at airports, government buildings and other venues is more cosmetic than effective.

Some tactics are laughable. After 9/11, air travelers were randomly assigned a not-so-secret code - “S” for “search” - indicating they would be fully searched at the gate. How smart was it to warn passengers so they could transfer carry-ons to a companion (as I had done to avoid having my laundry inspected)? Trunks of vehicles entering a parking garage at Logan are routinely inspected, ignoring the obvious fact that explosives can be hidden elsewhere.

Covert security, surveillance and investigative intelligence - the kind that disrupted the London plan - should be enhanced. I’m on board with behavioral profiling, screening of all checked luggage, and cockpit dividers and air marshals. But the time-consuming airport charade of removing coats and shoes and of confiscating toothpaste and nail clippers should cease.

Terrorism involves the threat of force to achieve an objective. By curtailing our freedoms and inconveniencing ourselves unnecessarily, we play right into the hands of our enemies. Let’s show them instead that they cannot control us through fear. Let’s never let ’em see us sweat.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at j.fox@neu.edu.