Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist who is perhaps one of the most well known atheists in the world, caused a stir over the weekend by tweeting that “bin Laden has won” after he had a jar of honey confiscated at an airport.
Dawkins made the angry tweet after he had honey confiscated by airport security, presumably because it was over the 100ml maximum allowed in hand luggage on international flights:
(The word dundridges is a word coined by Dawkins to indicate a “petty, bossy, bureaucratic little rule-hound.”)
The tweets from Dawkins soon went viral, with over 1,700 retweets at the time of writing. Not all the feedback was positive however (“I’m not sure that Bin Laden’s number one target was your honey jar,” one follower tweeted, while another compared Dawkins to Winnie-the-Pooh).
OK, so complaining to 846,505 people about having to throw away your honey may seem a little petty, but perhaps Dawkins does have a point.
The blanket ban on liquids over 100ml was introduced in October 2006, two months after an alleged plot to down transatlantic airliners two months.
Experts on “security theatre” have argued that the 100ml limit is meaningless, as a 400ml explosive liquid can be transferred to four 100ml containers relatively easily.
Dawkins’ anger struck many as absurd – a 72-year-old man’s pain at losing his honey is easy to scoff at, particularly when contrasted with the specter of a terrorist attack on a plane.
But why do we restrict travellers from carrying bottles containing more than 100ml of liquid in the first place? The logic behind this restriction has always seemed flawed.
Even in this instance, some claimed that liquid plan would not have been effective.
Writing for the Register, for example, Thomas C. Greene argued that the mixture was too unstable to mix ahead of time and too complicated to cook up in midair in sufficient quantities to bring down a plane.
Nonetheless, security agencies reacted swiftly with a restriction that would make this unproven threat slightly more difficult.
Rather than bringing on one 400ml container, would-be terrorists would have to bring on four 100ml containers.
It was, some would conclude, the ultimate in security theatre, which is the investment in countermeasures intended to provide the feeling of security without making a significant difference.
For some perspective, we emailed Bruce Schneier, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School and a program fellow at the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, who has written widely on the topic.
Schneier pointed us to a story he had written for the Guardian in 2008 on the pointlessness of a ban that no one takes seriously. Here’s one key passage:
There are two classes of contraband at airport security checkpoints: the class that will get you in trouble if you try to bring it on an aeroplane, and the class that will cheerily be taken away from you if you try to bring it on an aeroplane.
This difference is important; making security screeners confiscate anything from that second class is a waste of time and doesn’t make us any safer.
In other words, bans on things like guns and bombs are effective because they are taken seriously, leading to interrogations and black marks on one’s record. Because there are no consequences to getting caught with liquids, however, determined terrorists could easily try multiple times until they lucked into one of many gaps in airport security (there are plenty of reports of people accidentally taking liquids onto planes out there).
As Schneier concluded:
[T]hose in charge of airport security need to make a choice: Either a 4oz bottle of saline is a potential bomb, or it isn’t. If it is dangerous, treat is as dangerous and treat anyone who tries to bring one on as potentially dangerous. If it’s not dangerous, stop prohibiting it from being taken onto aeroplanes.
So should we get rid of the liquid restrictions entirely?
Hopefully, a better solution to this difficult problem may be coming soon: Testing for devices that scan specifically for explosive liquids is reportedly due to begin in January 2014.