Tuesday, September 19, 2006

False Alarms?

I just read a really interesting article from The Weekly Standard, by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, about terrorist practice runs on commercial airlines. He says that some of the false alarms we've been hearing about lately may not actually be false alarms, but rather exercises, probing for weaknesses, and figuring out what behavior triggers suspicion with passengers and crew. We do frequently read about incidents that don't result in immediate terrorism as mistakes, or over-reactions by a hyper-vigilant population. Gartenstein-Ross doesn't think that the suspicions are over-reactions, though. Rather, it's people response to legitimately disturbing events, designed by would-be terrorists to test the boundaries.

He cites several specific examples of questionable behavior, where the most reasonable explanation is the dry run theory, and says that since the foiling of the London bomb plot in early August, "at least 20 public incidents involving airline security have been reported in the United States and Europe." All of the examples cited by Gartenstein-Ross involved young Muslim men. Let's at least acknowledge the possibility that these incidents were precursors to future Islamic terrorist acts. According to him, terrorists have a couple clear things to gain from such dry runs:

If the terrorists have reasonable stories and don't possess weapons or the means to blow up a flight, their dry run or casing will likely be remembered as nothing more than a false alarm. Actions of this kind are fairly low-risk ventures for terrorists from which they derive two distinct advantages. One is that they can test the limits of our tolerance, determining what behavior will raise red flags and what will not. The second advantage is that, as an increasing number of law enforcement sources suspect, terrorists or their sympathizers may be trying to catch the Federal Air Marshals' attention in order to determine who the marshals are.
Even when certain travellers set off alarm bells with other passengers and crew, most suspicious behavior is dismissed by investigators after it becomes clear that there was no immediate threat. Garenstein-Ross, however, makes a good case for the argument that the young Muslim men involved in these incidents, don't have to bring down the plane they're on to be accomplishing their objectives. One of their main objectives might be to get us to start ignoring our own warning bells:

Beside the information that terrorists can gain, suspicious behavior that catches the attention of crews and air marshals may produce alert fatigue. When a number of "false alarms" occur on airplanes, it runs the risk that both airline personnel and the public will become desensitized to future threats. In Preventing Surprise Attacks, Richard Posner refers to this as the "boy crying wolf" cost of announcing terror threats, and warns that false alerts "increase the likelihood that true alarms will be ignored."
I think Gartenstein-Ross' theory is probably pretty darned accurate. It's a small example, but do you remember when car alarms first became the big new thing? Every alarm brought everybody to a window, or out to the street, to see what was going on and whether someone's car really was in peril. Pretty soon, however, we all started realizing that some of those alarms had a hair trigger, and would go off if a bird flew overhead, or someone's skirt brushed the fender. Two things resulted from this. One was that all the alarms started getting reset not to be so sensitive, and the other was that we all began ignoring the alarms when they did go off. Now if we hear an alarm, unless it's coming from the spot we parked our own car, we barely even notice it.

These airline incident "dry runs", unless every one of them really is a false alarm, are happening for a reason, probably several. Gartenstein-Ross raises some good points that bring us around to the question, "Can we afford to reset our alarms, and ignore them when they do go off?" My answer is no. I remember being at an airport not too long ago and seeing some unattended bags. I called over the security guard, and both he and the lady who ultimately came to claim the luggage looked at me like I was a little loopy. I don't care; I'm not resetting my alarm. You can decide for yourself where yours is set, but if you want my vote, I say keep it turned up. It may irritate a few people, but not nearly as much as it would if we ignore one of those false alarms long enough to make it a true one.

(By the way, it's worth reading the article just to see the dry run examples he gives.)