Monday, August 21, 2006

Rational Irrationality: Why I flew home thirsty

There are often times when the government seems to be acting out of control.

Recently, as you can read about anywhere, there was an incident in Heathrow
where a joint-venture between US and UK forces arrested twenty some odd
terrorists who were planning to blow up an airplane, reportedly with explosives
concocted onboard as separate liquid ingredients.

This occurred two days before I was supposed to fly home.

I was not happy.

Now I wasn't afraid of potential terrorist attacks. Flying just after an
incident like that is one of the safest possible times to fly, what with a
heightened sense of awareness present in all the passengers and security
personnel. However, without bottled water onboard (now deemed a dreaded "liquid",
I couldn't get a drink as often as I wanted to, and being a person who drinks
more water than most, the result was one of the most uncomfortable flights I've
ever been on. I could literally feel my eyes drying out as the hours
dragged on.

As many have pointed out, virtually no safety is gained by these extra
security measures. It's impossible to exactly predict how a terrorist will
strike next because they can choose from a virtually infinite number of
terrorizing attacks. So preparing in accordance with the last attack does you
virtually no better in terms of actual safety than before.

However, when I sat down to think about it, I realized it was the most
rational option for the government to take.

To give it an over-generalized definition, let's say the government's purpose
is to provide for the people so as to make them as happy as possible. As a loose
framework of happiness, we'll go with Maslow's hierarchy of needs (thanks as
always wikipedia). Safety is the number two priority, and as a result the safety
of a government's people is pretty high on the government's list of things to

However, plane travel is already extremely safe. The phobias and fears people
associate with flying have nothing to do with actual mortality, hijacking, or
bombing rates. Most of these fears stem from a lack of control about one's own
fate and having it instead rest entirely with the pilot (or God, or science, or
whatever that person believes to be the most powerful player in his or her fate
outside his or herself in this case). To someone with those fears, even the best
odds are of negligible comfort, despite those odds being better than, say,
driving a car for ten miles on the interstate.

Given that these fears are irrational and based solely on inconsolable fears
(after all, we can't all be piloting the plane... someone has to go
along for the ride), the government then needs only to make people feel safer in
order to keep their leadership ensured. In that context, the more intrusive the
method, the better it is. Put simply, broadcasting more sound bytes about
fighting terrorism abroad through increased intelligence (which is by far the
best way to actually fight terrorists) won't ring sharp enough in many people's
ears. On the other hand, ban all substances from planes possibly considered a
liquid and then the people suddenly feel like something's "being done."

Consider it from the government's financial point of view, they can pay
simple money for more screeners, the National Guard, and let the program
virtually be its own PR. The newstations will undoubtedly run with the story
without any prompting whatsoever. Choosing to increase intelligence though,
would require a lot more effort in spreading the message as well as training all
those highly skilled workers in espionage. The effects then wouldn't be seen, or
more importantly, felt by the people. The government would then be blamed not
for its over-reaction, but for its idleness. Not far behind would be a political
nightmare of being accused of being weak on national security.

And in an election season, no incumbent can afford to look like he doesn't
care about the safety of his constituents.

So I watched a lady who spoke terrible English and excellent French empty out
her purse in shock as her lip gloss, and mascara, and other items were thrown in
the trash one by one. I sat sandwiched into the window, with my eyes too dry to
read or sleep and no flight attendant close enough to ask for water for hours. I
muttered under my breath in anger as I outlined this article, knowing full well
that the entire security upgrade was a ruse, simply designed to get that extra
"good feeling" out of the public. I don't like dishonesty, and claiming that
these measures will help make our airports more secure is a flat out lie. Unlike
other government policy changes I read often about, this time I felt the cost
of the government's publicity stunt personally, and it cost me one of the few
things that make flying bearable to me, at zero gain to my sense of safety (or

In short. This extra security makes me mad.

...and more than a little thirsty.

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