Mail That Goes Bang

Reference an article in the Wall Street Journal of November 13, 2010 by Holman Jenkins, Jr., titled, “Al Qaeda Discovers the Mail Bomb: How about not overreacting for a change?,” I recently published four related posts in the Rants and Raves Logbook that deal with the key issues addressed in this article: 1) our overreaction to the changing nature of the threat of terrorism, and 2) the underlying success realized by terrorists every time we succumb to a knee-jerk compulsion to do something.

These posts are: “Airport Security Out of Control,” “Airport Security Update,” “Airport Security – The Hidden Highway,” and “Battleground USA”

Jenkins: “Al Qaeda today is a far less capable organization than the one that pulled off the 9/11 attacks. Sometimes the obvious just needs to be stated. Look at an arc drawn through the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the American embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the USS Cole attack and 9/11, and then the failed shoe and underwear bombers. This is a record of radical decline. With its latest fizzled attacks on aviation, al Qaeda has now resorted to a technology—the mail bomb—that has been around for, oh, 300 years and hardly represents an existential threat to civilization.”

According to Jenkins, between two and four mail bomb attacks occur per year, down from the 10 or 20 in the 1990s. Apparently, mail bombers are like the rest of us, less likely to use the U.S. Post Office. Changing to UPS or FedEx isn’t exactly quantum leap in the technology of transporting packages that go bang. To paraphrase what Richard Clarke, the former White House terrorism czar, told PBS earlier this month: “If you just step back and look at statistics, both in this country and around the world, the truth is that bombs are going off all the time.”

That begs the question if we really need to implement costly new security measures simply because al Qaeda has discovered the mail bomb. Jenkins: “For once, we could decide not to overreact when the terror group shows us a new trick.”

The two parcel bombs posted in Yemen last month and intercepted in transit (thanks to a tip from Saudi intelligence) are a case in point. Jenkins notes what he calls the “pseudo-revelation” of law enforcement that one of the bombs might have been intended to detonate in a cargo plane as it flew over an East Coast U.S. city, and he responds, “Well, yes, it might. Next time you’re in the air, try looking down. It would take a fantastic stroke of luck to bring down a plane where it would actually cause significant casualties on the ground.”

Even a cursory look at the facts as reported in the media directs our attention to a few very basic examples of security awareness that cost absolutely nothing. A total of thirteen packages were shipped out of Yemen from the originating shipment point on that day. How hard is it to take a look at them? And if someone did, wouldn’t it be logical to ponder why someone in Yemen would be shipping printer cartridges to the U.S.? It’s not like Yemen is a leading exporter of printing supplies, especially since shipping costs for single items would exceed the value of the cartridge.

Jenkins: “A more interesting question is why, in a world of infinite targets, al Qaeda keeps aiming its consistently unsuccessful blows at U.S. aviation. The answer is symbiosis: Every dollar al Qaeda spends launching a failed attack is probably a worth a billion dollars in funding to the U.S. Transportation Security Administration, which, oddly, makes every failed attack a triumph for both parties.”

Now that, dear reader, hits the proverbial nail on the noggin.

 America is receiving poor, if not negative, payback from its defensive measures. It’s one thing to take the war to Al Qaeda, and quite another to create the runaway train known as the Homeland Security Department and then let its engineers control the throttle.

Jenkins: “Where we haven’t succeeded (or even made much of an attempt) is in disarming the political imperative behind ‘security theater.’ No politician can yet afford to be seen doing less than everything possible to prevent a repetition of the last attack, however ineffectual and costly those steps.”

And I love the way he says this, so I’m just going to quote it: “Happily, a citizen revolt may be brewing. Wide currency has been given to an American Airlines pilot’s recent letter urging his fellow union members to refuse to participate in backscatter X-ray examinations inflicted on air crew every time they show up at the airport. Passengers sooner or later will join the revolt in numbers that can’t be dealt with simply by dragging the non-compliant off to jail. Then perhaps we can start to find an exit from the political cul-de-sac that prevents us from adopting a more reasonable air security regime.”

Amen and hallelujah, Mr. Jenkins.

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