No one will ever again be allowed to carry an ink or toner cartridge onto a passenger flight within or destined for the United States.
So decreed our Department of Homeland Security in the wake of the attempt last month to put package bombs on a cargo planes destined for the United States. British authorities now say the bombs, originating in Yemen disguised as printer cartridges and addressed to a synagogue and a Jewish community center in Chicago, could have blown up somewhere over the Eastern seaboard. Luckily, they were yanked from the cargo flights.
Do you feel more secure knowing that toner cartridges are now on the no-fly list? I didn't think so.
Somewhere in his man cave in a lawless corner of the world, an al-Qaida bomb specialist is laughing. This is the kind of thing you can count on from American security officials: an overcompensating response to tricks the terrorists have already tried. Meanwhile, the terrorists are thinking of new ones.
Air cargo industry folks know this. Even the people at the Transportation Security Administration know it. Let's hope members of Congress know it, too, because in coming weeks hearings are set to begin on air cargo safety.
Many in Congress with oversight responsibility will be tempted to call for drastic new security measures. The fear among cargo experts is that they will do so without fully considering their costs or technological limitations.
One of the airline cargo industry's congressional overseers has already begun barking for just such drastic measures. Rep. Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, is vowing to introduce legislation mandating 100 percent physical screening for air cargo flights. These are planes loaded only with cargo, not passengers.
The airline industry has already adopted some precautions that Markey has backed. As of August, cargo that rides in passenger planes (a fraction compared to the larger air cargo business) is completely screened. As Markey put it in a recently released statement: "The security of the traveling public is the most precious cargo of all when we fly." Well, of course. And the line sounds soothing until you begin asking the pertinent questions. Such as, do we have the technology to screen 100 percent of all air cargo? And what does that cost? As it happens, we don't have the technological capacity to do that. And decreeing that cargo companies carry out such screening anyway won't change that fact. Nor is it likely to provide the U.S. a magic wand to control how foreign governments operate their airports. Legislating security standards we don't have the wherewithal to enforce is another version of the unfunded mandate. It's bad government.
"Pure security theater." That's how Robert W. Poole Jr., founder of the Reason Foundation, characterized the new cartridge bans in a recent article. Poole advised Reagan, both Bushes and the Clinton administrations on transportation issues. He wisely cautioned against "enacting costly, poorly thought-out regulations based on the specifics of a new incident." Is looking at everything - ripping apart every parcel, every shipping container filled with packages from different origination points - the most prudent route to security? Or is the way to go to beef up intelligence and to become better at how we assess risks, while also continuing to develop technology? Hint: It was combination of tremendous intelligence work and international cooperation, in addition to excellent security technology, that led to the Yemen packages being yanked from their flights before disaster could happen.
So what members of Congress should be concerned about is not looking like they're responding with tough measures. They should instead inquire whether our security agencies and our air transit companies are using the best intelligence practices. They should make sure that U.S. intelligence officials are doing their utmost to collaborate with friendly foreign intelligence agencies, and that we understand the limits of our (and other countries') security technology. I'd recommend that they study what Israel does to maintain the safest airports in the world despite being considered Enemy No. 1 by the world's premier terrorists.
We're lucky in more ways that one that the package bombs from Yemen came to nothing. We got a reprieve from a new round of terror hysteria. It gives Congress the luxury to think like terrorists, not politicians. That's what we need to do to remain a step ahead of terrorists - who are after all exceedingly patient and calculating in their desire to do us harm.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.