9-11 certainly got America's attention. For decades before , the volumes of technological threat assessments assembled by Federal and foundation sponsored counter-terrorism commissions had languished unread, because with one low tech exception, the Oklahoma Federal Building bombing, terror dwelt more on screen than in the real world. Only when that world changed did those funding the academic study of terror begin to read the encyclopedic description of what it had to work with. They did not like what they read.
For one thing , many reports, reflecting their sources, were alarmingly long. 'Sax Handbook Of Dangerous Substances ', then in its tenth or so edition , was already the size of the Bible. Reasonably complete descriptive catalogs of explosive chemicals and toxicology reference works were long past the point of fitting into a single volume.
Now that terror existed for real , there was a rush to expand the definition, for the anthrax scare added a compulsory shelf load of biology tomes to the counter-terror reading list. There was a lifetime's worth of catch-up reading to be done , and absorbing it all left few any time to think quantitatively about the human dimension of the threat- or its detection. Putting a drive-through gamma spectrometer in unskilled hands is about as constructive as giving Albert Einstein a Ouija Board , yet that's the way the counter-terror game is played today.
In all too vivid memory, just 19 fanatics had killed 3,000 people and a major icon of the American dream, using nothing more volatile or explosive than aviation kerosene. Within the years following , propane tanks, common quarry explosives and nail polish remover would claim hundreds of additional victims from London To Bali . The potential arsenal of fanaticism might range from the exotic to the everyday ,and many reared diabolical ingenuity , but the reality was that the praxis of terror was closer to No-tech than Low Tech. Yet instead of being cut down in due proportion, the watch lists of ingredients for Infernal Machines grew ever longer. Nobody stopped to think that the number of substances being monitored was rapidly outgrowing the most pessimistic estimates of how many suicide bombers even al Qaeda could field.
Action , not thought , was being demanded, and the mandate made clear was that even a 1% threat must be taken as seriously as any other- whatever it was, a means had to be found to detect and stop it. But what kind of explosive ingredient does not meet that criterion ? And if you sniff and snoop simultaneously for hundreds or thousands of materials , what are the odds of your detectors sounding a false alarm near any of the millions of materials that are Not Completely Different in their chemical and physical properties ? Especially when airport and drive through detectors cannot linger , lest they bring commerce to a frozen halt ?
Few chemical or radiation detection technologies are foolproof. In the rush to deploy them in the War Against Terror , it proved hard to rank them in order of their susceptibility to false alarms. If gas chromatographs , mass spectrometers and coincidence counters were far from foolproof , it was because their designers had never thought of letting fools near them- if McDonald's were run like a NMR lab, it would take two PhD's to flip a burger, and the check list for firing up an electron beam microprobe would do credit to a nuclear submarine.
Making so much rocket science user -friendly to minimum wage operatives of dubious literacy has worked about as well as one might expect. Set the threshold of false detection low, and the odds are that terror will not be stopped. Set it high enough to meet the 1% threat criterion made famous by the Vice President, and the wider the range of threats covered the greater the likelihood of false positives so far outnumbering real threats as to bring all transport to a halt. Many new technologies , from advanced gamma ray spectrometers to labs on a chip have been hailed as the next big thing in security, but we are starting to see a wave a of R&D start up bankruptcies.
Considering the disparity between the desire for absolute safety and a threat spectrum as shallow as it is broad , this is hardly surprising. It is not the technology that is at fault, but the threat definition behind the policy that drives Congressional demands for ever better ways to detect threats , rather than identify the manifold causes of false alarms . Because , in case you haven't noticed, for the past half decade , every one of the tens of thousands of alarms heard in the nation's airports has turned out to be something completely different from the threat spectrum of real terror.
When , not if, al Qaeda engineers its next end run around our porous borders , or snatches weapons civil or military from within them , reflect on what the terabuck spent on TSA could have accomplished offshore in the hunt for OBL.