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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Dear Prudence

A life of exuberance and eccentricity

Who’s Afraid of Alice Munro?

A long-awaited biography gives the facts, but not the mystery, behind this writer’s genius

Flying Naked Next

Can we replace fear-driven theatrics with resilience in our quest for air travel security?

Brian Flemming

It might be time to ditch Pierre Trudeau’s now shopworn description of what it’s like for Canadians living next door to our gigantic U.S. neighbour. Instead of mice sleeping next to elephants, Canadians should be imagining themselves as the cops on Law and Order: we can see and hear everything happening on the other side of the one-way glass but those in the interrogation room—i.e., Americans—cannot see or hear us. And what Canadians have been seeing and hearing through the glass since last Christmas Day has been astounding.

The bumbling bureaucratic behemoth known as the Department of Homeland Security—and its subordinate agency, the Transportation Security Administration—once again reacted in pure panic to the failed attempt by the pathetic Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the underwear bomber, to blow up an America-bound airliner. Over Canada. Umar’s failure was a fitting end to the nasty “noughties” that began on September 11, 2001, and ended on December 25, 2009: a decade that began with a bang ended with a whimper.

After Umar, most of the American commentariat focused on what the state does, or does not do, or should do, in air transport security. Some of the same politicians and cable TV hosts who railed against “the public option” in the recent healthcare debate not only embraced that option in air transport security, but demanded more government solutions to the imperilling of passengers. One would have thought the ingenuity of the world’s greatest capitalist engine might eventually focus on private solutions to foiling attempts by violent extremists to disrupt plane travel. But no, none were broached.

Anyone who has pondered government regulation will know that the last thing that should ever be allowed is for the regulator and the deliverer of any service to sleep in the same bureaucratic bed. The conflict of interest inherent in such an arrangement is always fraught. But the TSA both regulates and delivers airport and airline security in the United States, using more than 50,000 screeners, all of whom are public servants: a dangerous conflict. If Americans could look through the one-way glass, they would see a different model. Here, a Crown corporation—the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority—is the independent deliverer of air transport security services, while Transport Canada is the arm’s-length government regulator of these services: a healthy regulatory situation. CATSA is steered by a board of directors drawn from the business community, the general public, airport authorities and airlines. The inclusion of airports and airlines in the management of an air security system is unheard of in the United States and most other countries, and is envied by many.

Most airline and airport security is designed to make passengers feel safe, not to be safe.

Canadian airport screeners are unionized employees, not of CATSA but of private contractors who regularly bid for this business. This allows Canada to have wage rates that vary regionally, saving millions annually. In Canada, airline passengers pay for airport and airline security through an air transport security charge included in all tickets. No one Canadian contractor is allowed to dominate the screening business and no one union can organize the screener workforce nationwide, thus avoiding the sticky question that recently impeded congressional approval of a new TSA chief in Washington. (Barack Obama’s nominee refused to revealwhether he favoured unionization of the TSA workforce—he probably did secretly—so Republican committee members blocked his approval. There is still no appointed head of TSA, one year after Obama took office.) Nor do the chattering classes in the U.S. ever talk about that sacred business acronym, return on investment, when they opine on air transport security. If they did, they would soon find the government continues to hurl money at a system that gives al Qaeda and its clones a return on investment that is impressive. The ROI question is routine in private boardrooms; why not in the boardrooms of the Department of Homeland Security or the Transport Security Administration?

As the tremulous “teenies” get under way, Canadians should recall the words of Alfred Hitchcock—who knew how to frighten movie audiences—when he said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” The showbiz parallel, unfortunately, is all too apt, and it is time for the public in developed democracies to start demanding a lot less anticipatory terror and a lot more well-grounded information and action from their political classes in what used to be referred to as the global war on terror (GWOT) but what has now morphed, in the politically correct kingdoms of Barack Obama and Gordon Brown, into the struggle against violent extremism (SAVE).

In the air transport security world, there is a widespread reluctance to come clean with the travelling public about how airport and airline security really works and how effective it is. When hard questions are posed about failure rates for airport screening or the number of false positives spewed out by expensive technology, our political masters, if they respond at all, retreat into saying the success of security efforts can best be judged by what did not happen. And, of course, the public is not allowed to know what did not happen; that would only help the bad guys. Yet, when investigative journalists or government inspectors test screening systems at North American airports by walking through the detector gates with nail files, box cutters or penknives in their pockets or purses, the failure rates range between 15 percent and 25 percent. In the early days of the war on terror, a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representative used to publish results of American penetration tests. They were so abysmal the committee stopped revealing them. We should not be surprised by these failures: don’t drugs routinely get into our highest security prisons and smuggled successfully across borders?

To be sure, the effectiveness of security of any kind—military, police or air transport—cannot easily be tested. Insecure systems can exist for years before being exposed as inadequate. Systems can only be conclusively tested when they are challenged. Just because your carefully alarmed house has not been burglarized lately does not mean it is secure. Maybe no one has tried to break in. Or perhaps there have been many attempts to break in but the thieves have failed and given up. In both cases, you may not know about the non-attempts or failed attempts. That is because these security “successes” are hidden or impossible to prove.

Most people, whether they admit it or not, are fearful of flying.

The worst moments for Canadians have come when prominent Americans say they “know” that all or most of the 9/11 hijackers came through Canada on the way to perpetrating the defining security outrage of the nasty noughties. The hard truth for Americans is that none of the hijackers came through Canada. Shortly after her swearing-in, Obama’s secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, claimed once again that these murderers had come to the United States from Canada. Her apology for this egregious error was less than heartfelt. Senator Hillary Clinton said the same thing in 2005. And Elizabeth Strout in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Olive Kitteridge, has a character feel shame because she knew “two of the dark-haired hijackers, silently thrilled with their self-righteousness, had come down through Canada and walked through the airport in Portland [Maine] on their way to such hellacious destruction. (She might have driven right by them that morning, who knows?)”

This urban myth about Canada is so firmly fixed in many American brains that it appears impossible to dislodge. Bizarrely, Canadian polls also show a significant number of Canadians—more than those who think Elvis is alive—believe the 9/11 hijackers came from Canada. American commentators and officials keep calling Canada a haven for terrorists. The teeth grind. For the record, there has been one documented case of a would-be terrorist crossing the Canadian-American border: Ahmed Ressam, in December 1999, was caught by an American customs officer trying to smuggle explosives in his rental car into Port Angeles, Washington, with the intention of targeting Los Angeles International Airport.

While the world awaits the defining literary novel or film of the war on terror, alert historians note that today’s terrorists are the close kin of earlier extremists. Attacking airliners is the 21st-­century equivalent of Russian nihilists tossing bombs into the tsar’s carriages in the 19th century or IRA militants blowing up pubs in the 20th. All these acts fit under the rubric of the propaganda of the deed, using gestures as theatrical as any Hitchcock movie. And the responses of authorities are equally theatrical: most of airline and airport security is designed to make passengers feel safe, not to be safe. Screeners look for things, not for the behaviour or provenance of passengers. And everyone plays catch-up, fighting the last war.

A government that was not playing head games would tell the public how effective the billions of dollars spent on security has been.

Most people, whether they admit it or not, are fearful of flying. The kind of death represented by a plane falling, Icarus-like, from the heavens seems to be qualitatively more horrible to the fearful than the many more annual automobile accident fatalities or the unnecessary deaths of thousands annually in our hospitals, however bizarre this gradation of deaths may be. The extremists know this. They also know that when authorities harden a point in the security system—by installing whole body imagers or millimetre wave technology machines after the briefs bomber’s failure—a new soft target, or vulnerability, is created somewhere else. Even though an attack at a crowded security lineup at rush hour on people waiting to go through screening would kill or maim as many people as the downing of an airliner, the extremists have failed, thus far, to seize this opportunity. Why? Because the theatre of terrorism does not encourage this kind of attack. It needs to happen up in the air. By the same token, if our defenders and their political masters were serious, a secure system would have passengers and their vehicles screened as they entered the airport grounds or terminal buildings. That is what happened in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and what happens in Israel today, but nowhere else. Pity.

A government that was not playing head games would tell the public—or, at minimum, a special committee of Parliament, sworn to secrecy—how effective the billions of dollars spent on air transport security has been. Some advanced western democracies do this. But Canada, as witnessed during the recent Afghan detainee imbroglio, does not trust any parliamentary committee with non-redacted information. In the U.S., where they do entrust secrets to congressional committees, top security bureaucrats constantly whine about how secrets become public through leaks, but they are still required by law to share them.

The failure rate of today’s screening technology and of the people who operate it is high enough that governments should be explaining that they are doing all that can reasonably expected to protect everyone from hijackers. Everyone knows that road transport laws and regulations only protect drivers up to a certain point: after that, the driving public must insure against the rest of the risk. Why shouldn’t the same private sector practices apply to air travel?

Instead of cringing before extremists, governments should try to instill qualities such as resilience.

As it learned more about the true risks associated with air transport security, an informed public would not only buy insurance if worried about planes crashing into buildings, but would also demand some other simple initiatives. For example, technology currently exists—and could be installed on every passenger plane—that would allow the pilot of a hijacked plane to push a button in the cockpit (much like a teller in a bank robbery) and allow control of the plane to be taken over by ground controllers. Suicidal extremists could then only kill the passengers on that plane, and no one else: sad, but better than the nearly 3,000 people killed on 9/11.

That kind of technical fix will not happen until governments stop playing the fear card and admit the global war on terror has claimed a miniscule number of victims since it began. In retrospect, it seems more and more certain the 9/11 hijackers were lucky to get through. That conclusion appears to be valid because their fellow extremists have not been able, thus far, to repeat the stunning “success” of the Twin Towers and Pentagon attacks. The failed attempted murders by Richard Reid, the shoe bomber, and by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the briefs bomber, even if they had succeeded, would have fallen far short of the scope and drama of the tactical theatre of 9/11.

Instead of cringing before these appalling extremists, governments should get off their knees and try to instill qualities such as resilience in their people. Some governments are doing this, but not in North America. When it was under more serious attack, Israel fostered resilience by rebuilding—immediately or overnight—shops and cafés that had been bombed by extremists. Demonstrating that life would return to normal, regardless of how many had died the day before, created a kind of confidence that few other countries have attempted to achieve in the GWOT or the SAVE.

Canadians can be proud of their unique public-private model for air transport security and should boast about it, as we currently do about our banking system that survived the Great Recession intact. If Canadians were really bold, we would tap on the glass separating us from the Americans and point out to them what we are doing in air transport security. We could also discuss how the next airliner attack will happen: with an internally ingested bomb, similar to one that almost killed the Saudi minister of the interior last year. If we do not get their attention, Americans will not slow the juggernaut of backward-looking, fear-driven air transport security. Their next panicky regulatory change could have us all flying naked, without cabin baggage. It is time to talk with our neighbours about moving to a brave new model for air transport security, one able to accommodate modest risk, one that is people based rather than thing based, one that is inspired by sound private sector principles and the separation of action and regulation, and one that has more respect for a passenger’s right not to be humiliated.

Brian Flemming is an international lawyer, policy advisor and writer in Halifax. He was assistant principal secretary and policy advisor to Prime Minister Pierre E. Trudeau from 1976 to 1979. He was twice a candidate for Parliament.