Five at 8 – 12/28/09: It’s all ‘security theater’

The final Monday Morning Rouser of 2009:

1) Back in the days of Conelrad, an alert tone would tell you that if there were a nuclear attack, all you’d have to do is tune to your local radio station and we’d tell you what to do. At the radio station, sealed pink envelopes would tell the disc jockey (as we used to call them) whether the “alert” was real based on nuclear-sounding codes like Tango Foxtrock. The flaw in this, of course, is the assumption that a radio station’s disc jockey would hang in there while the missiles rained down. It was theater, of course, designed to create the illusion that there was a plan in the event of a nuclear attack.

And that, argues Gulliver on The Economist, is what the new security rules on airliners are, as a result of Friday’s attack on a Northwest Airlines flight near Detroit.

Gulliver looks forward to the barrage of lawsuits from the first people who are forced to use the bathroom in their airplane seats. This is the absolute worst sort of security theatre: inconvenient, absurd, and, crucially, ineffective.

What’s to stop a terrorist from doing whatever he’s going to do before the one-hour deadline? The answer is what it’s always been: other passengers. That’s what stopped the alleged would-be bomber, 23-year-old Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, on Friday. Vigilantism poses a serious barrier to any other plotters. Making passengers more reluctant to leave their seats seems counterproductive.

It’s all for show, agrees security expert Bruce Schneier. “Only one carry on? No electronics for the first hour of flight? I wish that, just once, some terrorist would try something that you can only foil by upgrading the passengers to first class and giving them free drinks,” he says.

What are the odds of airborne terror? Statistics freak Nate Silver has calculated it:

This means that you could board 20 flights per year and still be less likely to be the subject of an attempted terrorist attack than to be struck by lightning.

The father of the accused Northwest attacker tried to tell authorities his son might have turned terrorist. The U.S. knew about his alleged ties. And yet he still got on a plane. The Washington Post reports today it’s not unusual that identified potential terrorists are not investigated.

CBS reports that the man bought his ticket in cash and got on the flight with no checked baggage. How could this happen. The head of the Department of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, answers the question by repeating the question. CBS’ Harry Smith is one of the few journalists bothering to ask officials why passengers have to sit still for an hour when the problem isn’t the passengers; the problem appears to be the incompetence of security officials.

She does not answer the question.
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2) Thailand has started deporting thousands of Hmong back to Laos despite international concerns — and certainly concerns from Minnesota — for their safety. Thailand says they’re economic migrants. The Hmong fought against the Communists in Laos during the Vietnam War. All these years after it was first produced, MPR’s This is Home series is still a moving account of how so many ended up in Minnesota.

3) An Illinois man captures the difficulty of the health care debate. Most healthy people think they’ll stay healthy. “My attitude was: If it’s not hitting me on the head, I’m not thinking about it,” said Fraas, 52. “And honestly, if it was going to cost me money, I wouldn’t have been in favor of it,” Tim Fraas tells the Chicago Tribune. Then he had a heart transplant and lost his job.

4) What’s the lure of ice fishing? The Winona Daily News considers the art of passing it from one generation to the next. “It’s a hit-and-miss kind of sport,” one man said, still waiting for a bite. “Sometimes you get them. Sometimes you don’t. But who you are with makes it worth it.”

I’ve been considering a News Cut series on ice houses, profiling some of the better ones in Minnesota. If you have one or know of one, let me know. The Public Insight Network here at MPR queried our audience and, amusingly, found the anti-ice-house backlash.

Mike Tangen says there’s only one true way to ice fish. Snowmobile out on the lake to your favorite spot, auger out a hole, and stand there and fish.


Ice house? Who needs an ice house? He says he also pinches the hook and uses artificial bait. It toughens him up, he says. Besides, comfort isn’t what it’s all about.

5) The year in fact-checking:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
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Daily Show
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Political Humor Health Care Crisis

Bonus: Tips for making New Year’s resolutions you might actually keep.


The recent recession prompted people to change some of their habits. Listeners tell us they’ve been spending less, deferring large purchases and eating at home with their families more often. Which recession habits will stay with you after the economy improves?


Midmorning (9-11 a.m.) – First hour: The recession has radically altered the financial landscape for many Americans, but Chris Farrell says there is a silver lining in people consuming less. In his new book, he talks about how to make frugality a habit.

Second hour: When families compare their health histories, they may not mention one risk that appears to be handed down: the tendency for severe depression. Christopher Lukas writes of a tragic thread of suicide that claimed his brother, mother and several other family members.

Midday (11 a.m. – 1 p.m.) – First hour: Political commentators Tom Horner and Todd Rapp review the year in politics.

Second hour: An American RadioWorks documentary about young children, called “Early Lessons.” Here’s the accompanying Web site.

Talk of the Nation (1-3 p.m.) – First hour: One in four homeowners is now underwater: Their house is worth less than their mortgage. Economic journalist David Leonhardt: discusses when to walk away from your mortgage.

Second hour: The art of movie special effects.

All Things Considered (3-6:30 p.m.) – The winding down of the H1N1 pandemic is offering federal and state health officials a chance to assess what worked and what did not. MPR’s Lorna Benson will have the story.

Some neighbors of a proposed natural gas-fired power plant near North Branch say it’s the wrong place, and Minnesota doesn’t even need the electricity. Natural gas plants like this produce less pollution than coal, are less dangerous than nuclear and could fill a demand for power. So what’s the problem? MPR’s Stephanie Hemphill will answer that question.

MPR’s Elizabeth Baier gives an ear to the largest bell carillon in Minnesota. She visits Mayo’s bell tower and spends a morning with the master carillonneur, one of only three who have played since the bell tower was installed in 1928.

And NPR’s Jim Zarroli wraps up the year in the financial markets.

  • John O.

    A suggestion and a gripe:

    – Put uniformed officers on aircraft. We see them on other public transportation systems, why not aircraft? Sure there are some that are supposedly “undercover,” but visibility is a deterrent all by itself.

    The gripe:

    I have had to travel more for work lately. One one recent flight, a young woman who was clearly intoxicated was allowed to board. She took a phone call on her mobile as we were moving onto the runway for takeoff. She basically told the flight attendant to **** off as she shut her phone off.

    Then she passed out on the shoulder of the airline employee occupying the seat next to her for the duration of the 90 minute flight.

    Had she instead been a 6’4″ drunken ogre, things might have been different. And not for the better.

    I’m all for adopting the approach El Al takes with its flights and security in general. Inconvenient? probably. But I’d rather have that instead of the mamby-pamby approach we currently have. Does anyone with an IQ in double-digits honestly think that a terrorist wanting to blow up an airplane in flight is going to abide by goofy rules that forbid moving in the cabin or having anything on your lap in the last hour?

    Give me a break.

  • Bob Collins

    I was just thinking of that idea yesterday. Replace flight attendants with armed officers (Tasers?).

    There’s nothing left from a “customer service” perspective that requires flight attendants. Their job is discipline, not ammenities.

    What’s intriguing to me is why the terrorists keep trying airplanes when trains and buses are wide open?

  • John O.

    The only remaining “customer service” piece is jamming and cramming every last piece of luggage into those overhead bins. And making sure your seat is in the upright position with the tray table up before takeoff and landing.

    Terrorists probably go for the airplanes because airports have amenities (think WiFi) that bus stations or train stations frequently do not have. One only has to look at our current Amtrak depot and (God forbid) the bus terminals.

  • JackU

    On trains and buses (mostly trains).

    Union Station in Chicago has wifi and I would guess the larger east coast stations do as well.

    As for why they target planes instead of buses and trains? Just look at the Madrid and London attacks. In order to create the level of havoc with ground transportation requires multiple terrorists and a well coordinated (or at least orchestrated) attack. Also in this country there aren’t enough trains to allow secondary targets. Unless you’re in the Northeast or Chicago, you get 1 train a day if you’re lucky. Also consider the news reporting of non-terrorist incidents in this country. Plane crashes, and near misses remain national stories much longer than train wrecks that are usually viewed as regional stories.

    Personally I don’t mind if they avoid the trains. That’s my prefered way to travel.

  • John O.

    Jack, I would love to take the train if it did not take a full day to get to Chicago, or 28 hours to get to D.C.

    That sorry excuse for an Amtrak depot in St. Paul, combined with TWO measly trains daily (one westbound and the other eastbound) that continually stop along the way has not helped grow their business. A high-speed corridor would be nice, but you know what? I’d be just as thrilled with a limited-stop train on existing right-of-way, in addition to the Empire Builder between Chicago and here.

    Add WiFi capabilities beyond the Northeast Acelas and maybe more of us would travel that way. I would certainly consider it.

  • kates

    re: ice houses. if you don’t need an ice house, why do you need a snowmobile to get to the lake, why not snowshoe or ski? and do you use a hand-turned ice drill? if you’re gonna go for tough, go all the way!