What the Playdough Bomb means for America…

By Niles Wimber

It’s a warm Friday evening, the third week in May. Memorial Day weekend. Everyone is in a rush to meet family for the holiday and nowhere is that more visible than the crowds thronging Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, Georgia. Amidst the thousands milling through Terminal South, a man walks up to one of the curbside check-in points, suitcase in hand. He smiles at the agent behind the desk as he presents his boarding pass for a flight to New York. As she tags his suitcase, they have a friendly conversation about the last Hawks game in Phillips Arena. When she’s finished, he thanks her warmly and walks on into the airport. He then promptly heads to the MARTA train station and boards a train for downtown. In the bustle, he is a ghost. Just like the other three men spread across the other terminals.

A few minutes pass. A frightened bag screener in the luggage processing area reaches for the alarm as a suitcase loaded with bricks of plastic explosives and wires appears on the x-ray monitor. Security begins a stealthy, low-level evacuation, not knowing when the bomb could go but needing to prevent a panic. Suddenly, tension sweeps the crowd: breaking news alerts from smartphones and wall-mounted TVs announce that multiple bombs have been discovered in Miami-Dade International. To security’s dismay, people overhear a frantic radio transmission that a second bomb bag has been found in Terminal North! As they lose control of the crowd, panic sets in. A stampede for the exits overwhelms their ability to respond.

It’s not just in Atlanta. Watching from home, millions see bomb bag discoveries start to pop up across the country: Atlanta and Miami are quickly followed by Dallas/Ft. Worth, Denver, Chicago O’Hare and LAX. As evacuation after evacuation shuts down hundreds of flights, the resulting delays and uncertainty of further attacks threaten the entire system. Desperate to avoid potentially crippling damage as the bombs have yet to detonate, Atlanta police take a risky initiative and deploy the bomb squad into the site of the first suitcase. The nation watches in suspense as a suited officer carefully unzips the case and is shocked at his discovery: a mass of wires and brightly colored Playdough.

To make a long story short, I’m sure you all can guess what happens next: shock is replaced by outrage as it becomes clear that all the bombs are merely modeling clay and random wires. Security experts are both relieved and stunned at the simplicity of it all. The public outcry is understandably less calm than that. There would most likely be another post-9/11esque air travel slump. Under public pressure and new security recommendations, Congress would react by passing more legislation aimed at combating the threat, perhaps combining check-in and security. Multiple hour lines at airports would become the norm. The people would be rattled at yet another strike against the homefront that we never saw coming. This doesn’t even include the billions of dollars of economic damage done by having a surprise multi-day shutdown of the six busiest airports in the country.

How could this happen? Well, essentially all American airports use what I deem the “none shall pass” approach to security: one massive, unified security checkpoint that all passengers funnel through, with the main focus being scanning everything possible looking for weapons. As we can see from above, this system is entirely useless against an attack that never needs to get farther than the check-in line. I will say that the TSA ideally focuses on screening everyone’s stuff pretty thoroughly, but again, that’s useless as the “bombs” are already in place by the time the screening happens. I would further like to point out that the TSA doesn’t really have the most crack security agents in the world.

This is a sample TSA job opening posted on the federal government’s job website. I’ve included this gem for you all:

Applicants must meet these qualifications in order to be further evaluated in the TSO [Transportation Security Officer] hiring process:

  • Have a high school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) credential OR at least one year of full-time work experience in the security industry, aviation screening, or as an X-ray technician
  • Be proficient in the English language (i.e., able to read, write, speak, and listen)

That’s literally it. Get through high school (unless you bounce nightclubs for a year, then that counts) and speak English. According to the US Department of Education, that’s almost 80% of the population that qualifies up front. It goes on to mention a few further generic qualifications like take a drug test/background check, pass an interview, be able to work in a team, lift heavy objects, etc. etc. In fact the only requirement that’s different from working at K-Mart is you have to take a test on reading x-ray machines. Right now, (with zero experience) I could be a TSA agent making up to $40,000 a year frisking old ladies and children.

So, is protecting society hopeless if random blogs can poke holes all through the last 10 years of effort by our security services? Well… not really. There is a better way and it’s called multi-layer behavioral profiling. I’ve done some research on the subject and for this article I drew most of the material from here and there. You can check those links for the full story but to paraphrase here, behavior profiling is used at Israel’s Ben-Gurion International in Tel Aviv. In short, they have roving security people throughout the airport who have quick interviews with people using proprietary questions that reveal body language. As you progress through check-in and go to your gate, you pass through different layers of security staff with the outermost layers flagging people with suspicious behavior to the inner layers so they can pry more closely. Each check-in desk has a luggage scanner that checks to make sure there aren’t any extras in your bags and, if there are, there are bomb-proof rooms within a short distance that the bag can be disposed in. Why evacuate the terminal when you can just lock the bag in a super closet?

I’ll admit that there would be difficulties in changing over to something like that, enough for a whole other article. But I’m thinking I’d rather have an effective security system that proactively defends against the sort of people who have similar ideas to our friends from the craft store up there.

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