Explosive undies and TSA scanners

It’s an explosive new line of intimate apparel! Everyone can get in line to purchase your very own useless set of ammo undies. That’s right, useless as in they won’t blow — at least, not before someone notices you sitting in an airplane seat trying to inject chemicals into your groin.

If Christmas Day’s underwear bomber blew his attempt to go out with a bang, then airports and the Transportation Security Administration blew it in more ways than one. Bad puns aside, everyone already knows that the bomber had explosive powder hidden in the crotch of his underpants, but these blow-away briefs were only half the weapon. Authorities reported that pentaerythritol tetranitrate, a powerful plastic explosive that is notoriously difficult to detonate, was found in the underwear. Bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to use a chemical from a syringe to set off his underwear, but only succeeded in setting himself on fire, not the explosives.

So what about the syringe Abdulmutallab was using to try to ignite the PETN? In an age where nail clippers, shampoo bottles and knitting needles cause holdups in airport security lines, how did a syringe loaded with chemicals make it onto a plane? All this to-do about seeing through people’s clothes with the new privacy-breaching digital strip-search scanners could have been avoided if someone in security at the flight’s Amsterdam origin point had just confiscated the syringe.

But suppose the underwear was self-igniting and the only part of the bomb that needed to be smuggled on board. If these scanners had been installed last June instead of January, as was the original plan, and Abdulmutallab had gone through one, would the explosive underwear have been found? One of the people who helped develop the machines, British MP Ben Wallace, says that is unlikely. The scanners are purported to be a less invasive and equally effective alternative to the traditional strip search, but they seem prone to the same problem.

For argument’s sake, suppose a similar situation occured in the United States and the scanners noticed something amiss about a passenger’s crotch. Would security have actually checked to see what the matter was? It would be entirely dependent on the training and competence of the security staff on hand at the time.

To clear up any misunderstanding, the machine does not light up with little red arrows beeping “Danger! Terrorist! Bomb here!” So what pressing purpose do these new machines fill? Not much. They might work to make people feel more safe, even if violated, but Israeli airline El Al’s security procedures are considerably more effective and less invasive. As it stands, only one El Al airplane has been successfully hijacked, and that was in 1968. Given that Israel is arguably the nation most targeted by terrorists, this record is astounding.

It’s good that no one but Abdulmutallab himself was seriously injured in the bombing attempt this Christmas, but every traveller is going to be paying in other ways. Amsterdam airport security blew it when Abdulmutallab was allowed to board that flight with his bomb and Transportation Security Administration blew it when they responded with the strip scanners. Maybe it’s time to start looking for someone else to run airport security. Is El Al willing to expand?

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