Tag: bombers

Body Scanner Blues

I’ve got a piece in today’s New York Post that points out some inconvenient truths about the body scanners now installed at airports across the country. Building on Jim Harper’s excellent post, body scanners are not being installed because of a well-reasoned risk analysis.

As Timothy Carney pointed out in the Washington Examiner, this is a sop to the companies that make the body scanners. The machines don’t work as well as advertised – a March GAO Report determined that it is not certain the technology would have found Farouk Abdulmutallab’s suspicious package, and that a cost-benefit analysis needed to be conducted before spending $340 million each year to run the labor-intensive equipment.

The same report found that cargo screening was a weak spot that ought to be addressed, but it took terrorist cargo bomb plots to get the TSA to momentarily escape the clutches of regulatory capture and tend to this threat. The British have been much more candid about the limitations of this technology as applied to low-density explosives, noting that the scanners probably wouldn’t have stopped the 2006 liquid bomb plot at Heathrow.

Of course, you can always opt out of the body scanners in favor of a groping on par with the one that motivated my colleague Penn Jillette to report his sexual assault to the police.

You could opt out entirely. TSA Director John Pistole says you won’t fly, but if you publicize your objections, the TSA may try to fine you $11,000.

Keep a stiff upper lip. I’m sure that this will all be much smoother and less invasive when TSA screeners unionize.

War without Killing?

The United States is going to cut back on airstrikes in Afghanistan, according to the new commander there, Gen. Stanley McChrystal. This decision comes on the heels of Central Command’s release (late on a Friday afternoon) of the executive summary of a report on the killing of dozens – at least – of civilians in Farah Province in Western Afghanistan. On May 4, a B-1B providing air support to US and Afghan forces there bombed some buildings, thinking that they contained insurgents. The buildings were apparently full of civilians.

Everyone seems to think this is a wise policy shift. The center of gravity in an insurgency, we’re often told, is the population. You need their support to find and defeat insurgents. Killing people undermines their support for the occupier and the government. You often hear the same thing about airstrikes in Pakistan.

This is a sensible argument, but it has some problems.  For one, empirics to support it are hard to come by. Second, it isn’t obvious that people cooperate with occupiers or governments because they like them. Support may come instead from the mix of incentives – coercive and economic – that the population faces.  The power to reward and punish behavior probably matters more in generating cooperation than feelings of loyalty, although they are not mutually exclusive.

You might respond that it is simply immoral to kill innocent people, whatever the strategic effects. That takes us to the real trouble with the critique of airstrikes, which is the idea that you can fight clean wars.

The accidental killing of Afghan civilians is a tragedy we should limit (one way to do so might be to simply stop using bombers for close air support).  It is also an inevitable consequence of fighting a war in Afghanistan. Troops are going to use plentiful and occasionally indiscriminate firepower to defend themselves. This problem can be mitigated but not solved. You should not support the war in Afghanistan if you cannot support killing innocent people in prosecuting it. As Harvey Sapolsky (my professor at MIT) points out on his new blog, the allies killed 50,000 French civilians in the course of liberating France in World War II. Today precision munitions save many civilians, but, along with euphemistic words like state-building, they threaten to delude us into thinking that we can fight antiseptic wars that adhere to liberal norms. (The situation is even worse in Germany, where they are arguing about whether to call what they are doing in Afghanistan a war).

As Sapolsky puts it:

Air power is our advantage, especially in a country where our forces are spread thin and the distances are large. Precautions have limited greatly the number of weapons dropped and how air power is employed. But only a little deception apparently is needed to put this advantage in jeopardy. Soldiers are still dying in Afghanistan. If there is no will to inflict casualties then there should be no will in absorbing them. Try as we may to avoid it, war kills the innocent.

For the source of this post’s title see the first article (pdf) here.