Airport security in the post-9/11 era
After 9/11, the United States made a bunch of changes to transportation safety and security. Most of those changes, though, aren’t necessarily visible to passengers. Well, most of the real changes. What is visible is the “security theater” of intrusive safety checks and scans prior to boarding a flight.
Reason‘s “Why Don’t More Countries Enforce the Airport Security Rules That the TSA Says Are Essential?” notes just how unusual America’s rules for flying are. The Transportation Security Administration – formed in the aftermath of the attacks – bans hundreds of banal items that seem dangerous but really aren’t. “The TSA’s internal studies show that carry-on-item screeners spend half of their screening time searching for cigarette lighters, a recently banned item, and that they open 1 out of every 4 bags to remove a pair of scissors,” The Washington Post reported. “Officials believe that other security measures now in place, such as hardened cockpit doors, would prevent a terrorist from commandeering an aircraft with box cutters or scissors.”
Changes like hardened cockpits and heightened intelligence-gathering are more effective than confiscating toy swords and cigarette lighters. Few countries require passengers to take off their shoes, yet shoe bombing remains about as common internationally as it is in the U.S. – which is to say, it doesn’t happen, and it isn’t even clear that it would be successful if it did.
The 24-hour news cycle
Let’s be clear: 24-hour news existed long before 9/11. CNN launched in 1980, taking advantage of the lack of overnight news coverage to carve out its own niche. Early on, though, that’s all it was: news coverage during a time when news coverage wasn’t usually available. The launch of Fox News in 1996 disrupted CNN a little by competing not just with 24-hour news but with a more overt partisan angle. But in 2001, Fox News transformed cable news forever with a single continuous line of text.
“We had an information overload back then, the likes of which we never really experienced before,” explains former Fox News anchor Shepard Smith in NPR’S “From TV News Tickers to Homeland: The Ways TV Was Affected By 9/11.” The network imitated the stock ticker used by finance networks like CNBC but instead ran news headlines at the bottom of the screen. Similar tickers had been tried before, but the sheer volume of breaking news on September 11 and the following days necessitated the ticker in a way previous events had not.
Moreover, networks like Fox News realized that the ticker conveyed a sense of crisis. “The emergency was permanent,” wrote James Poniewozik in 2010. “The warning lights were always flashing.”
Fifteen years after 9/11, Donald Trump secured a historic victory not by proclaiming the importance of the War on Terror but by decrying it as an “endless war” that must be stopped. Trump, an avowed conservative, was breaking from his party in a major way. Since President George W. Bush, the Republican Party was the party of the War on Terror. Trump, the first Republican elected president since Bush, was not into it.
It would not be Trump who ended the War on Terror but rather his successor Joe Biden. It would wrap up mere weeks before its twentieth anniversary and, now, Vox looks back on “20 years, $6 trillion, 900,000 lives.”
“Let’s suppose for the sake of argument, though, that al-Qaeda was capable of more attacks on the scale of 9/11, and that absent the war on terror, the US would have lost 3,000 people (the approximate death toll on 9/11) annually due to al-Qaeda strikes. That amounts to some 60,000 lives saved to date. Whoa, if true,” writes Dylan Matthews. “But even with that degraded capability, global deaths from al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Taliban attacks have not fallen since 9/11. While al-Qaeda’s ability to attack America has been badly degraded, its operations in countries like Yemen, Syria, and Libya are still significant and deadly. ISIS’s attacks, and those of the pre-conquest Taliban in Afghanistan, were even deadlier.”
Most of the deaths in the War on Terror were not Americans; many were affiliated with terrorist groups like ISIS/ISIL or al Qaeda. But many others were civilians, caught in the middle of the conflict or, worse, targeted while being complete unaffiliated. As recently as September 10, 2021, it was reported by the New York Times that a “righteous” drone strike in Afghanistan against an imminent terrorist attack was actually the murder of a foreign aid worker.
Even taking a purely America-centric view, Vox says the War on Terror would have needed to prevent “more than 69 9/11-scale attacks over the past two decades, or about 3.5 attacks every single year” to justify its enormous price tag.