Saturday, June 16, 2007

Our Dangerous Shoes

The folks at Boing Boing have persuaded me that Bruce Schneier is perhaps the most sensible and persuasive writer we have on matters of terrorism and security. And I agree with their view that all the restrictions against liquids on airplanes are ridiculous and limit our liberties without improving our safety or security. I want to agree likewise with them that the same is true about making us take off our shoes all the time at the airport security checkpoints. It certainly seems that way to me. But Cory Doctorow in his post yesterday linking to an excellent recent Schneier essay, "Portrait of the Modern Terrorist as an Idiot," seems to misuse that reference somewhat in furthering his argument against the airport checkpoints with all the shoe-shedding and liquid-leaving.

Before the two paragraphs he excerpts from the Schneier post, Doctorow opens with a sentence briefly describing the essay and closes with one effectively summarizing its thesis as "We devote all our security energy to saving ourselves from idiots whose capacity for self-delusion is far greater than their capacity to kill us and blow up our national monuments."

In between is a paragraph that I want to agree with that begins "There's an analogy to DHS checkpoints where we take off our shoes and shed our liquids." On the matter of liquids, I've never encountered anything to dissuade me from the Boing Boing view.

On the shoe question, though, Doctorow says, "It's only because [Richard Reid's shoe bomb] plot failed miserably that we even know about it," which I pretty much agree with. However, he uses this idea to argue that therefore "Blowing up airplanes with your shoes doesn't work." It could well be true that rigging your shoes as explosive devices is hopelessly useless, but the man he's linking to as an authority on these matter actually says, "if shoe-bomber Richard Reid had been just a little less stupid and ignited his shoes in the lavatory, he might have taken out an airplane." That sounds as though it does work.

I hate taking off my shoes airport security checkpoints. I want to be on board with Boing Boing when they explain why I'm right to. But Cory Doctorow only hurts that cause when, in arguing that shoe bombs don't work, he links for support to his preferred authority suggesting that they can.

Update: Cory Doctorow points out something important via e-mail. "X-rays don't detect explosives in shoes, Steve." Which is a comment highlighting the two levels to the issue here. One: as long as I'm nitpicking, Cory's suggestion in his post that blowing up an airplane with shoe-bombs wouldn't work is still undermined by Schneier's that it would have worked had Reid the sense to get a little privacy before attempting detonation. Two: that criticism aside, he's restored my certainty of the wrongness of the airport shoe-scanning circus.