Hand over that can of soda

When anything can be a terror weapon

August 13, 2006|By MICHAEL HILL | MICHAEL HILL,SUN STAFF

First it was nail clippers. Now it is shaving cream. We take it in stride.

It shows how America has - and has not - come to terms with what happened in New York five years ago. The nation has already turned its burning, collapsing twin towers into a big-screen movie, Oliver Stone's World Trade Center, that opened this weekend. But Sept. 11, 2001, has not been turned into history. It is still palpable, still possible.

And so when the airport security lines grow and grow and grow and the agents in charge say no contact lens cleaner solution is allowed on board any planes, there are few objections. Oh, there are the laments about time wasted and missed connections and restless, disappointed children. But bombs are going off in Baghdad. Missiles are flying into Israel. Dumping out our shampoo is the least we can do in the war effort.

Many of course fear that our security experts are always fighting the last battle, banning box cutters only after the 9/11 hijackers had used them, banishing nail polish only after the suspects in Britain, who allegedly were planning to use some sort of liquid explosives to bring down a slew of jetliners, had been arrested, perhaps even by focusing on airplanes when the terrorists have moved on to other targets.

After all, as Ron Suskind reports in his book The One Percent Doctrine, U.S. authorities once put a variety of sites in the United States on high alert based on data on a computer that was several years old. In hindsight, that seems an unwise deployment of resources, as if Lincoln had sent troops to Gettysburg long after that battle was fought. But, at the time, it was one of the few pieces of hard intelligence the security types had about this elusive threat. So they acted on it in a way they hadn't in 2001 when an FBI agent raised objections about a suspicious type taking flying lessons.

So the lines at the airports are long and the mound of wasted toiletries grows, but the objections are few and muted. Something must be done. Attention must be paid.

We are in a war. And we are not sure how to fight it. So shaving with soap at your next motel stop might be a blow to the enemy. Maybe.

The fear, of course, is that something could slip through. Suskind's 1 percent doctrine is of importance here. In the weeks following 9/11, it became a tenet of the Bush administration that if there was a 1 percent chance something drastic had happened - like al Qaida getting its hands on nuclear weapons - then security authorities should assume that it had happened and act accordingly.

That is what is going on now. What is the chance that that a bottle of soda being drunk by some teenager heading for Los Angeles will be used to make a bomb on a plane? Certainly less than 1 percent. But if there is the slimmest chance that some terrorist somewhere is planning to use a soda bottle for just such a purpose, the decision is to ban them all because of that fear that something could slip through. Hand over that Mountain Dew.

Of course, things slip through all the time. Thousands of trucks drive into the city of New York each day via the Lincoln and Holland tunnels. How do we know none of them contain explosives and a crazed driver on a suicide mission? Millions of pieces of cargo come through the nations' ports each day, relatively few of them closely inspected. Certainly some of them contain contraband drugs or counterfeit goods. Do any contain another 9/11?

We don't know. So, for now, take my shaving cream.

So much of the problem is that the threat could come from anywhere. Maybe those Egyptian students who didn't report to their university in Montana? The person standing next to you in the line at the airport? This enemy does not wear uniforms.

The English authorities apparently arrested a score of British Muslims in this latest sweep that was said to have stopped the downing of numerous airliners. The last major attack in England, the bombing of the subway system on July 7, 2005, that killed 56 people, was the product of similarly homegrown terrorists, young men who were born and raised in England. That fact robs us of one of our major lines of defense.

We have told ourselves for generations that once people are exposed to the brand of freedom and capitalism found in America and Western Europe they will never go back. But for some reason, that is not proving to be true. The 9/11 hijackers were not street kids from some refugee camp who struck out because they knew no better. They were middle-class Saudis, for the most part. They lived in America for years, before that in Germany. They knew very well the culture they were attacking. They were not seduced.

They could have opted to become Americans. But they didn't. They retained some identity more fundamental to them, an identity they saw as under attack by the Western values we assume are universally attractive.

So the suspicion increases. The gap widens. The resentment festers.

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