News & Views from 465 California Street

Terrorism’s Exploding Cost

Clint Reilly

Last month we learned that lax security procedures allowed a terrorist to board a commercial flight bound for Detroit with a bomb sewn into his underwear. Luckily, the device’s detonator failed, sparing the lives of hundreds of passengers.

Nevertheless, the botched plot exacted a heavy economic and psychological toll.

The subsequent national uproar forced President Obama to call for full body scanners at airports and led to severely tightened security precautions at airports around the world. Air travelers reported tortuous delays and federal officials laid plans to spend $1 billion on full-body scanners.

As I watched the president and his White House aides call for even tighter airline security measures, I wondered why the gold plated equipment and elaborate precautions already in place had missed an underwear bomb.

It may feel like we’re fighting terrorism by instituting draconian security at airports and vulnerable facilities across the nation, but I am beginning to feel that the gigantic expense of defending Western society against a small band of terrorists is itself a massive victory for terrorism.

Undoubtedly, heightened precautions have saved lives and contained the enemy. But many of these policies and procedures could be improved and implemented far more efficiently. By forcing every law abiding citizen to submit to the same rote security procedures repeatedly over years, we are wasting valuable resources that could be better directed at more probable terrorist targets.

On September 11, 2001, I was in England visiting the Tower of London with my wife, our two daughters and my mother and father -in-law when we learned that the World Trade Center’s twin towers had collapsed. We hurried back to our hotel.

It soon became apparent what had happened. Terrorists had hijacked commercial airliners and crashed them into the buildings.

Later that day, World Trade Center tower three also disintegrated. Only two weeks earlier, I had attended a business meeting there.

We mourned the loss of life at a somber memorial in front of the American embassy where tens of thousands left flowers and notes.

Instantly, security tightened at airports around the globe and travelers were subjected to long waits and tight searches of luggage, handbags and clothing.

In subsequent years, these searches have cost more than $40 billion in wages paid to security staff and for new equipment at airports and buildings around the nation. The number likely reaches untold billions more around the world.

Of course, these are just direct costs. How much productivity has been lost to long lines and intricate security rituals? Liquids and gels in a plastic bag! Shoes directly on the conveyor belt! Random body searches by robotic airport guards are now a costly and time consuming part of daily life.

I once saw a guard perform a full body search on the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco at SFO while fellow travelers tried to protest. Another time, in Denver, I missed my plane even though I was in the security line more than an hour before my 9:00 p.m. flight. The airport was nearly empty, but the million-dollar full-body scanners were painfully slow.

A study by Resource Systems Group estimates conservatively that the annual cost to U.S. productivity is more than $8 billion per year in the extra time it takes passengers to navigate our airports.

I believe we need tough security to combat terrorism. Strict security measures are non-negotiable in a world in which we are threatened by violent extremists.

But these procedures should be deconstructed, critiqued and streamlined. Years after 9/11, we still have no processes to sort out and pre-validate the vast majority of safe travelers and law abiding citizens. By treating everyone as a potential security threat, we are rewarding terrorists and inflicting billions of dollars worth of damage upon our own economy. In this sense, terrorists don’t even have to succeed in an act of terrorism to hurt us.

Instead of requiring full body scanners at airports, can’t we utilize our technological genius to pre-screen the vast majority of law abiding travelers and intensify our focus on the real suspects?

Comments (7)

  • Clint-
    After reading your column this morning, I couldn’t agree more. It is frightening to think that, for a very few dollars (e.g., websites), the terrorists are able to hold us hostage and force us to spend millions if not billions of dollars to avert what we think is going to happen. I equate it to the student who, not caring to go to school today, calls in a false bomb threat, thus disrupting the lives of many.
    I wish I had an answer on how to avoid this dilemma. I guess if I did, I would have my own consulting company. However, we are an intelligent, innovative and resourceful nation and if we can’t figure out how to overcome the terrorists, who can? (except possibly the Israelis).
    Brent Parry

    Posted by: Brent Parry | January 19th, 2010 at 10:08 am

  • I fly a lot. I read your cogent comments on cost. You are right on. there are two dis-positive low cost solutions to this problem.

    The first is that No one ever asks the question, “do you have any intention of doing harm to this airplane or only person in it? Yes or No? this question could be asked using a voice stress indicator which costs about $3 thousand dollars. If there is a reaction on the screen, this person could be attended to more thoroughly.

    The second is, baggage containers that are bomb proof. There is no screening of significance for shipping by air and there is a lot of air freight on every passenger plane, particularly US first class mail. The cost to equip every domestic passenger with these containers at $26 hundred each
    can be paid for with a voluntary one dollar contribution from each passenger for 14 months. (source of info is air flight frequency data and number of planes).

    You are one of the few people who can publicize this without putting a target on
    your back.

    Posted by: anonymous | January 19th, 2010 at 11:58 am

  • We all know political correctness prevents us from taking efficient, economical steps to greatly reduce the terrorist threat. PC is a toxin in our system that enfeebles and will prove to be fatal.

    Posted by: Banjo | January 19th, 2010 at 1:11 pm

  • My business trip last week is a fine example of what you say Clint. I fly extensively. My SFO experience with TSA was a scene of total failure of professionalism and sheer stupidity. The net was a surly, childish TSA agent who was engaged in a temper tantrum and fight with his colleagues and apparent boss. God save us. Bring on the body scanners, get rid of the TSA agents and let’s just get on with it.

    Posted by: melinda maginn | January 19th, 2010 at 4:31 pm

  • In today’s weekly missive, you wrote, “Instead of requiring full body scanners at airports, can’t we utilize our technological genius to pre-screen the vast majority of law abiding travelers and intensify our focus on the real suspects?”

    Yes, we can and should. Alas, the logical step is not PC. Its called profiling, a common sense approach that would immediately send the ACLU and their ilk to the courthouse. The “hate-crime perpetrator” who authorized it is then tarred and feathered in the press before s/he is fired or resigns.. Its a bit disingenuous of you, with left-of-center sympathies, to ignore the elephant in the room. While few Muslims are terrorists, many recent acts of terrorism have been linked to radical Muslims or their sympathizers. It makes perfect sense to give them greater scrutiny. As for the howls of inconvenienced Muslim innocents, it won’t be the first time members of a group suffer inconvenience and discrimination due to radicals in their midst. That’s just the way the world works, or should in confronting terrorism. I speak from experience as a minority.

    Frank L

    Posted by: Frank L. | January 19th, 2010 at 9:46 pm

  • good article. my 96 yr old ex mother in law was literally patted down her 75 pound frame when she went to berliz where she has gone for the last 30 ish years at the same time of year…and her last name is as Irish as can be. oh, this was while she was in the airport wheelchair…
    perhaps full body scanners are to help dehumanize us, definitely the herd of sheep lined up while movie stars and other too important people as well as private jet flyers walk on through..
    your article was too kind
    linda d

    Posted by: Linda | January 19th, 2010 at 9:47 pm

  • Regarding your article about airport security. what about a tested plan that works!!
    The Israeli Plan!!

    Best, Helen W

    Posted by: Helen w. | January 21st, 2010 at 10:40 am

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