Archive - 2010

January 4th

Why Does It Burn When I PETN?

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Memo to everyone shitting themselves over Crotchbomber: YOU ARE DUMB.

Jesus fucking Christ on a pogo stick, he didn't blow up the plane.

I swear to fuck, we've had as much navel-gazing in the week and a half since Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab set his groin alight on a Delta flight into Detroit as we had in the month after 9/11. And the only structure Abdulmutallab managed to collapse was his little jihadist. How could it have happened? Why was it allowed to happen? Why was he allowed on the plane? How can we stop it from happening again?

Well, if you'll stop running around, screaming, and hosting cable talk shows for a few fucking minutes, I'll tell you.

You know why he was on the plane? Because he bought a ticket. Yes, he was on a watch list with about sixty thousand other dudes. you know what all those dudes have in common? They're generally pissed off people who've never actually done anything. Yes, generally pissed off people might do something, but we only know that after they try. We can't keep sixty thousand generally pissed off people (plus the hundreds of thousands of people with the same name) from flying on planes just in case one of them might try to set his pants on fire. It's impractical, it's illegal, and it's wrong.

How did it happen? Well, airport security is not designed to keep everyone from smuggling explosives onto planes and blowing up their legs. Or the plane. It's designed to make you think it's designed to do that.

You see, airlines need you to buy tickets to get on their planes. But thanks to a combination of 9/11 and the general societal trend toward believing the role of government/business is to keep its citizens/customers alive at all costs*, people will not buy tickets and get on planes unless they are convinced that everything possible has been done to keep them from experiencing any acts of terrorism, successful or otherwise.

It's not stupidity or incompetence that leads to security measures preventing the last attempt that made the news. Everyone knew on 9/11 that terrorists used box-cutters. So nobody was gonna get on the plane unless the airline was confiscating box-cutters. Or anything else that was sharp. Shoe-bomber? Nobody's getting on a plane unless the guy in front of them gets his shoes checked. Liquid bombers? Drink that baby formula or I'm getting a refund and taking the train.

This is why, every four years or so when someone gets around to trying to blow up a plane, we put on our hairshirts and pull our hair and wail and moan about why we don't have PETN-sniffing lemurs trained to crawl up people's pants legs, or why we aren't shooting anyone named Mohammed who dares to buy a plane ticket. So you'll feel comfortable enough to keep buying tickets.

You know what I haven't heard mentioned once since the Christmas crotchbomb? Why it fizzled. And I have a pretty good idea why we haven't heard that, and that's why it fizzled.

Here's the deal, or at least what I perceive the deal to be. The metal detectors and the x-ray machines that have been in place for decades do a pretty good job at keeping the reliable and effective bombs off of planes. If you've watched Mythbusters, you know you can't get a big boom without a significant amount of explosives. Which means that the people that do try have to rely on pockets full of all-plastic chemistry sets requiring a half hour of bathroom fiddling... that don't work once you're done.

And the second part of the deal is that there aren't that many people trying. Even if you assume that for every one attempt that makes the news, there are ten attempts kept secret, which is a wildly unlikely ratio in a world where everyone's carrying six cameras and wants to be on teevee? That's still less than 50 attempts on tens of thousands of flights over nearly a decade. There simply aren't that many people trying to blow up planes.

But saying there aren't many people trying to blow up planes, and when they try, they'll probably fail? That's what we call an unhelpful truth. It's true, but it doesn't make you more likely to fly on a plane. So now we hear the calls to "do more", whether it's racist profiling, radar that can see your penis, or pretending to overhaul the national security apparatus so that vague suspicions about thousands of people are somehow magically filtered to catch the one guy who decides to try something from coming to the attention of any passengers.

It's the same ignorance of odds that makes the lottery such a success. It just works the other way around. Me, I'd be perfectly happy to use the system that's managed to keep planes from exploding since, I believe, Pan Am 103 in 1988. But I can do math, so I'm not the target audience.

*Unless they're poor or hungry or have a brain tumor, of course - then you're fucked.