Scared of Our Own Shadow

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I hate to do a third post on “block cheese,” but this is just absurd.

The AP is running a story in which security experts praise the Transportation Security Administration for sending out a bulletin about suspicious items found in passenger luggage even though some of the alleged “incidents” were incorrectly reported by TSA:

Security experts and politicians–even longtime critics–praised the Transportation Security Administration’s warning that terrorists might be testing whether innocent-looking bomb components can be smuggled onto an airplane. . . .

The experts agreed that this judgment holds true even if the four incidents that triggered the warning turn out to have innocent explanations, as two of them – in San Diego and Baltimore – appeared to on Wednesday.

Say what?

First off, the San Diego incident didn’t just turn out to have an innocent explanation. In fact, a reasonable person might conclude that there wasn’t really any incident at all. The inspectors mistook an ice pack that was leaking for a ice pack stuffed with a clay-like substance similar to the consistency of plastic explosives–a mistake that was recognized on the spot after further inspection.

But even if you live in a perpetual state of paranoia and think that a 60-year-old lady with a leaking ice pack in her luggage constitutes an “incident,” how can you possibly praise the TSA for issuing a bulletin about the incident that gets all the facts wrong?

As the San Diego Union-Tribune discovered yesterday when it looked further into the so-called incident, the TSA bulletin said the ice packs were covered in duct tape and had clay inside of them, but local law enforcement said they weren’t covered in duct tape and didn’t have clay inside of them. “It is a little bit off,” a local official told the paper.

I’m all for TSA being proactive about security (up to a point), but this is just incompetence masquerading as hyper-vigilance. Getting facts wrong, mistaking utterly innocent behavior for threatening behavior, and over-reacting to perceived threats may be worse than doing nothing. It diverts and wastes limited resources and contributes to a panicky atmosphere that skews judgments.

We have to start being smart about security and counterterrorism and stop being so fearful.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.
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