Bruce Schneier beautifully sums up the lessons of the recent terrorist plot:
It's easy to defend against what the terrorists planned last time, but it's shortsighted. If we spend billions fielding liquid-analysis machines in airports and the terrorists use solid explosives, we've wasted our money. If they target shopping malls, we've wasted our money. Focusing on tactics simply forces the terrorists to make a minor modification in their plans. There are too many targets -- stadiums, schools, theaters, churches, the long line of densely packed people before airport security -- and too many ways to kill people.As an aside, I'd add that the media love to stir up hysteria about chemical weapons and recherche explosives, even - or especially - when the threat they pose is comparatively small.
Security measures that require us to guess correctly don't work, because invariably we will guess wrong. It's not security, it's security theater: measures designed to make us feel safer but not actually safer.
Airport security is the last line of defense, and not a very good one at that. Sure, it'll catch the sloppy and the stupid -- and that's a good enough reason not to do away with it entirely -- but it won't catch a well-planned plot.
And why not? The image of an ethnic enemy skulking in his secret laboratory has a pedigree that goes back at least as far as Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu, who frequently pointed out how many of his dark arts he'd learned from Western universities. This particular confluence of paranoias - racial animus, joined with the fear of science, education, and immigration - remains as powerful in 2006 as it was in 1913, and just as useful to conservative demagogues.
These airy speculations aside, there are two obvious reasons to focus on tactics. First, it frightens people. Second, it gives defense contractors an endless supply of specific, limited, lucrative projects to work on.
Apropos of which, Raytheon is working on a dirty-bomb detector for ports. If it's successful, I guess that anyone who wants a dirty bomb will have to build one within the United States. Let that be a lesson to 'em!
By the way, you can make picric acid out of aspirin. I suggest we get it off the shelves before it's too late.