Over the weekend, when I wasn't dodging Cherokees, I was holding my breath wondering what impact Friday's story on an attempted freighter bombing would have on airline security. It may still be too soon to judge whether it will result in us poor hapless sots having to further disrobe just for the privilege of flying from Miami to Chicago. Or to endure some other inanity in the name of security.
In general, although the stories were played above the fold until Monday, I didn't find them alarmingly shrill. The cable outlets, as usual, overdid it, with live press conferences on Friday illuminating every new fact as it became available. Over dinner, I was trying to make the point to a dinner companion that unless and until we learn to keep these developments in perspective, terrorism will continue to be what it is: a beautiful example of asymmetric warfare, the continuance of which we enable by so readily agreeing to be terrorized. Some goat herder in Yemen stuffs a printer full of PETN and the next thing you know, the cables have switched live to the White House. For a reality check, you have about 1000 times greater likelihood of being killed by lightning than by a terrorist attack.
But for something really bizarre, let's consider what defense reporter Fred Kaplan reported. In all of Yemen on Friday, a total of 13 packages were shipped out of the country by FedEx and UPS. Thirteen total. This is no surprise since Yemen ranks 120th in per capita income, just one notch above Sudan. It's not much of a stretch to say that Yemen's principle exports are concealed bombs and the people capable of using them. In that context, I would think that a printer being shipped from Yemen to the U.S. should draw a lot of suspicion. Why would anyone ship cheap crap like this to a country where you can buy any of a hundred new replacements for less than the cost of shipping?
Curiously, Kaplan's piece drew some blowback from people arguing that, well, you can't expect FedEx and UPS to X-ray and inspect everything. It will bring commerce to a standstill. And that's true enough. But we're talking Yemen here, people, the bomb capital of the middle east. And 13 packages. This shows how absurd the thinking around security has become. We're so biased toward the one-size-fits-all approach, that we assume that if a procedure that worksinspecting two out of 13 boxes--can't be used everywhere, it shouldn't be used anywhere.
Some of the news reports circulating yesterday reported that the tipoff came from Saudi intelligence sources who were able to come up with the tracking numbers, which some reporters thought indicated deep penetration and skilled spookmanship. Well, duh! I figure I could walk into the Sanaa FedEx office, produce $10 baksheesh, and walk out with all the tracking numbers I want. They get kudos for the developing the tip, however. (By the way, FedEx and UPS don't staff these office; they're local contractors.)
I don't know what FedEx and UPS are going to do about this problem, if a persistent threat develops. But somehow, I think a nice first step would be to maybe cast a suspicious eye on odd packages coming to the U.S. from Yemen. I'm just sayin'.