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Ed Gurowitz, Ph.D. Headshot

It's Time We Recognize We Have a New Kind of Enemy

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A lot has been written about last week's terrorist attempt aboard a Detroit-bound flight, and there is no question in my mind that it was a security failure of biblical proportions. I think HuffPost blogger Taylor Marsh summed it up very aptly:

Let's see, a young Nigerian male, whose flight originated out of Lagos airport on the continent of Africa, a notoriously iffy security proposition to begin with, reportedly buys a one-way ticket, paying in cash, with his father (chairman of Nigeria's FirstBank, the oldest bank in the country, with offices in London, Paris and Beijing), notifying the U.S. embassy in Nigeria that his son has been radicalized, warning the U.S., with the young man attempting a terrorist attack that was foiled by sheer sweet luck

In the wake of the event, for a few days at least, airport security was tightened up, with attendant long lines and increased personal searches, and passengers on flights were made to sit, bookless and iPod-less for the last hour of their flights, and heaven help anyone who didn't make it to the bathroom before that hour. There are already signs that this increased security is lightening up, and with good reason -- it was a massive overreaction to begin with.

I wonder, though, if we don't need to rethink our whole approach to security in a number of ways.

It seems to me that behind our thinking there is an unarticulated expectation that we should and can be 100 percent secure, if we just do enough. That thinking may be a holdover from a world that no longer exists.

In 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor was a shock to Americans -- no foreign enemy had assaulted our shores since the British in 1812, and, with two oceans between us and Europe and Asia and friendly powers at our north and south, we felt we were unassailable. The advent of air warfare changed all that and we recognized that we were not so secure any more. Through the cold war of the 1950s and the foreign wars of the rest of the 20th Century we were more or less alert to the possibility of attack, and even expanded our attention to include air hijackings (mostly to Cuba, for some reason).

Finally, 9/11 drove it home -- this is a new world. The assault on our shores is not from an army, navy, or air force, but by a new kind of enemy, one who attacked stealthily, in small numbers, and without apparent regard for the deaths of civilians or even for their own death. This took the guerrilla warfare that defeated us in Vietnam to a whole new level of danger and frustration for a government and military that was not versed in fighting such an enemy.

There is a country, though, that has lots of experience with this type of enemy -- the State of Israel has, since 1948, been under siege in exactly this way, interspersed with conventional wars, and they seem much better at dealing with it than we are - maybe it's time to learn from them.

Israel has what may be the most effective border security in the world, particularly where air travel is concerned. Traveling to Israel I was put through rigorous screening on departure from the US or from points in Europe -- in Frankfurt, for example, El Al departures were in a separated area of the airport, and had their own very thorough security.

On leaving Israel the screening was even more tight -- usually a minimum of two interviews that were interspersed with trick questions designed to catch lies, and a very complete examination of both carry-on and checked luggage. An Israeli friend of mine was a security officer for El Al, and on one flight a gentleman sat next to me on the upper level of a 747 -- this young, very muscular-looking fellow never took off his sport jacket, didn't read, eat or drink, and never took his eyes off the cockpit door. I might have been nervous if my friend hadn't told me enough for me to recognize the man as an air marshal.

I've asked Israeli friends what it's like for them to live under siege, and they are surprisingly relaxed about it. They are clear that the government and military are doing everything they can, and they recognize that even when terrorist attacks are frequent, the odds of any one person being in the wrong place at the wrong time are low, so they go about their lives calmly, albeit carefully.

Maybe we can learn from that -- maybe profiling doesn't have to be crude and racially biased, but targeted based on real information and interviews, and maybe the alternative to profiling is not to treat everyone like a potential terrorist, subjecting the very old, the very young, and the infirm to endless inspection while others go through unmolested.

Maybe it's time to recognize that this really is a war -- we may be at war against terror and terrorists, but they are also at war against us, and we're not going to find them all and kill them -- we have to have more effective defense as well as spending billions on offensive initiatives that don't seem to be working.