Airline Security: Intimations of Our Shrinking Horizons

I am a great admirer of the University of Michigan’s Juan Cole and his blog, Informed Comment. More than once – many more – he’s made me rethink positions I’ve loudly defended. He did it twice in one post today.

His first point on the much reviled TSA porno pats:

The TSA guys are trying to look more systematically for [forms of PETN, or pentaerythritol tetranitrate]. That is why they have adopted these more intrusive methods. And, there has been chatter among the terrorist groups abroad about launching attacks on American airliners with this relatively undetectable explosive.

None of us likes the result, which is a significant invasion of privacy.

But if al-Qaeda and its sympathizers could manage to blow up only a few airliners with PETN, they could have a significant negative effect on the economy and could very possibly drive some American airlines into bankruptcy. Al-Qaeda is about using small numbers of men and low-tech techniques to paralyze a whole civilization, which was the point of the September 11 attacks.

Since the Bush administration hyped the ‘war on terror’ trope half to death, many in the American public no longer want to hear about this danger. But it is part of my business in life to deliver the horrific news that the threat is real.

Juan Cole is one of the most sober members of the blogosphere. On this point – no matter how loathsome the TSA procedures – he must be taken seriously.

His second point, an almost off-handed conclusion, is startling:

And, you have to wonder whether air travel was not anyway a bubble. It depends on inexpensive fuel, which probably won’t be with us for long. It has a very big carbon imprint, which may soon be illegal. And it is vulnerable to low-tech chemical sabotage. Our generation perhaps, and the next one almost certainly, will have the unprecedented experience of having their world become larger and less accessible, after two centuries during which it shrank and seemed conquerable. Cisco’s telepresence technology may be the future much moreso than the airlines.

I agree. We of the West will find ourselves in a world grown larger by reduced air and car travel and (already) much truncated rail service while in one shrunken by electronics.

But Cole is mistaken on one point: our shrinking horizon has a clear precedent, albeit one 1800 years old. Of that, more tomorrow.

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