Terror in his Pants

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The failed attempt of a Nigerian wannabe jihaddist to detonate a bomb aboard an air- plane brings many questions. Since none of them were even asked, much less answered, in the mainstream media. allow me to bring some of them up.

First, the perp was the son of an important banker. This is not the first time that spoiled brats have turned to extremism. Witness Patty Hearst or, more recently, John Walker Lindh, the son of an affluent Marin County family, captured while fighting with the Taliban. Hence the question: will this new occurrence of a terrorist from a rich family put to rest the notion that poverty breeds terrorism? Yes, I understand the logic flaw: just because some Muslims born with a silver spoon in their mouths turn violent does not imply that poverty is not linked to terrorism. But several studies have shown that there is indeed no provable link between poverty and terrorism.

The most read is probably a study by Alan B. Krueger and Jitka Maleckova published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives in 2003. It shows that the middle class is over- represented in various samples of terrorists. Yet the cliche “poverty breeds terrorism” is still going around, and not just in liberal circles. President Bush declared “We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror” during his 2002 visit in Mexico. It is vain to hope that the media will pay attention to studies and logic, but they do remember anecdotes, and so let’s hope the “rich Nigerian terrorist” will help put this myth to rest.

Second, since when does the lack of competition improve performance? After 9/11, Bush reorganized the U.S. intelligence services, created the Department of Homeland Security, and consolidated intelligence agencies. As a result, intelligence departments that were previously overlapping and serving different needs were forcibly regrouped.

In many cases, this resulted in a “one size fits all” approach to intelligence collection, analysis, and distribution. In the pre-DHS days, a certain emulation – if not competition – was commonly seen between different intelligence bureaus. These parallel organizations have been replaced by a centralized behemoth that serves a captive audience. The different services are now deprived of even the limited flexibility they previously had for acquiring intelligence. In other words, U.S. intelligence now works with more centralization and less competition. And the media wonder: how could the Flight 253 terrorist not be on the TSA’s vaunted no-fly list. when his own father had warned the US embassy about his son’s radicalization? Oh, and he was barred from entering the UK, bought his ticket with cash. and had no luggage. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano asserted that “the system worked” – which is true if the “system” consists of sheer luck, bad bomb-making skills, and an infuriated Dutch passenger dragging off the terrorist before handcuffing him to a seat while an attendant douses the bomber’s flaming pants with an extinguisher.

Third, has Abdulmutallab really failed? Even if he had detonated his 80 grams of high explosive near a window, the plane would likely have survived. Nevertheless, the damage he did is more pervasive and more destructive than even the 300 lives he failed to take. Consider that the TSA’s security theater in airports (and maybe other places) already forces us to walk through detectors barefoot in an ironic homage to Richard Reid, the Shoe Bomber, who failed to detonate his heel. Thanks to Umar the Undies Bomber, security measures now include patting down passengers in ways that used to warrant dinner and a movie. Soon, full-body scanners will allow security voyeurs to conveniently see through our clothes.

This incremental loss of freedom and privacy paves the way to the next abuse level. Indeed, the TSA has heard about the novel technique used by Abdullah al-Asiri, the Arse Bomber, who splatted himself when he detonated a small bomb hid- den in his rectum in a failed attempt to kill a Saudi prince, and they wonder what to do to detect such threats. Fortunately, the upcoming Obamacare might very well create an army of unemployed doctors, among them proctologists who would happily take a government job and, er, put the finger on similar attempts. And even if we are spared such indignities, thee ever growing discomforts of going through airports will deter more people from air travel, increasing the financial troubles of airlines, plane makers, hotels, and the myriad services that surround them. People will drive hours rather than fly.

Abdulmutallab can be proud. He caused billions of business losses every year with one inept try.

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