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Fort Lauderdale and the vulnerabilities of an open society

It's becoming impossible to prevent attacks at airports, but there are some measures we can take to keep innocent travelers safe. (Photo via AP)

It’s becoming impossible to prevent attacks at airports, but there are some measures we can take to keep innocent travelers safe. (Photo via AP)

Earlier on Friday, 26-year-old Esteban Santiago attacked Florida’s Fort Lauderdale airport, killing five civilians, and wounding eight others. The gunman apparently traveled to Florida from Alaska, checked his bag with a loaded firearm, and then unleashed havoc in the baggage claim area. That premeditation suggests ideological intent reaching beyond emotional turmoil.

Regardless of whether the shooting is terrorist related, this incident is more proof of an enduring problem. Our society needs airports, but terrorists love attacking airports.

Airports offer terrorists lots of targets in confined spaces. And since so many people use airports on any one day, one attack has the power to spark fear across society. In the aftermath of attacks such as that in Fort Lauderdale, many of us wonder if we might be next. Airports are also centers of western commerce. Islamist terrorists in particular hate them.

Sadly, airports are difficult to protect. For one, airports pose an inherent contradiction between security screenings and efficient access. Put simply, passengers need to be searched, and that requires us to gather together in close proximity. Were we simply able to walk to our plane, security lines would be less dense at certain points. But terrorists would also find it easier to get weapons to gates or onto planes.

We need to accept that airports are impossible to defend with certainty.

Some disagree with that assessment. This afternoon, editor, Katie Pavlich tweeted out the following:

Unfortunately, while I respect her opinion, Ms. Pavlich is being optimistic here. When it comes to the crunch, TSA has few options to reduce the threat of attacks such as this one.

For a start, while Ms. Pavlich correctly identifies two major targets for airport plotters, she neglects one other. Namely, check-in areas. As with the Daesh (or ISIS) attack on Brussels airport last year (and other airport attacks), terrorists like check-in areas because they are easier to penetrate. Were, as Ms. Pavlich seems to suggest, the TSA to introduce security screening checkpoints at airport entrances, they would simply relocate crowds outside. That would only increase external threat hazards such as drive-by shootings and car bombs.

But there’s another issue that makes airport security very complicated, public expectations.

Let’s face it, few Americans enjoy delays in accessing their flight. And that’s exactly what would happen if the TSA took increased security measures. Consider what goes on in the citadel of airport security: Israel. In Israel, in addition to checkpoints and police patrols, Israeli security officers utilize a rather complex process of threat profiling. But while this approach reduces the threat, it also increases delays. That’s because contrary to most understandings, effective terrorist profiling involves assessing body language, luggage, the size of a travel party, as much as it does the appearance. And where the TSA could apply these methodologies, a lot of Americans would find themselves pulled aside, screened, and interviewed for 10 or more minutes. Delays would increase across the nation.

I don’t think Americans would put up with it. We’ve already seen the outrage that greeted TSA delays at airports. Americans expect our airport experiences to be relatively quick and easy. We do not expect to have to wait a long time. Moreover, few Americans would accept – as in Israel – origin/destination/ethnic profiling of minorities. Nor should we. Simplistic profiling would not work in America (remember, a significant proportion of Daesh-inspired terrorists are converts to Islam without family heritage/appearance from an Islamic majority nation). They look like most of us.

That is not to say we have no good options. We could increase SWAT-level police patrols inside terminals. We can also improve training for TSA officers so that they are more efficient in carrying out their duties. And, we can take proactive steps to prevent terrorists from accessing America (I have warned about this threat for two years).

But with all that said, in the end, we must accept that terrorists will keep targeting airports. In response, our counter-terrorism strategy must balance the necessity of airline travel with prudent determination.

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