The driving force behind Al-Qaeda and related groups acts of terrorism is not a profound hatred of air travel. They don’t deeply despise the Boeing 747. They aren’t driven by the belief that the ability to travel from New York to San Francisco in under 7 hours is affront to God.
They hate America and want to perform acts of terrorism to terrorize the country, regardless the venue. Even if we could magically make domestic air travel 100 percent terrorist proof, something that would not be possible without full body CAT scans or colonoscopies to check every body cavities, it would not make us any safer in the aggregate.
If we did achieve the impossible of making our commercial airlines completely terrorist proof, terrorists wouldn’t keep trying to go through airport security time after time, always getting caught. They haven’t declared jihad against our frequent flier miles. They would just switch to another target.
We have seen from the subway bombing in London, the train bombing in Spain, the Mumbai attack, the first World Trade Center bombing, and the night club bombing in Bali that they are more than willing to attack non-plane-based targets.
If would-be terrorists already in this country believed they can no longer attack airplanes, they won’t just give up on terrorism. They would attack any large gathering of people, like malls, sporting events, crowded Walmarts, or even these big lines of people in front of the airport security checkpoint. Places where they could kill as many or even more people than they could on an airplane.
Cultural norms, not security, previously made airplanes a target for terrorists
Airplanes made a good target for terrorists on September 11th because they could exploit our belief that hijackers don’t want to die. By using surprise, they were able to turn a small blade into a destructive missile–but surprise only works once. By just changing our collective thinking about hijackers, even without any increase in security, we assured that it wouldn’t happen again. Now, though, there is little intrinsically about airplanes that make them the top target for terrorist.
Surrendering more and more of our privacy at airport checkpoints for porno-scanners and aggressive patdowns is not going to make us safer. It is only security theater, meant to make us feel safe because it is designed to look like it is preventing us from the last attack. In reality, though, the absolute best case is that it will only shift the target of an attack. We have too many places in our country where people gather in large numbers to fully screen everyone everywhere. Instead of enhanced safety, we get a sideshow that private contractors are happy to exploit for profit.
What keeps us safe is good, old-fashioned, intelligent police work and the fact that the number of individuals in this country hoping to perform acts of terrorism is incredibly small. In the grand scheme, the terrorist threat to your life is almost incalculably small; the threat to your liberty from the security showman, however, is unfailingly vast.