The Flawed Logic That Made Airport Security Confiscate Richard Dawkins' Honey

Evolutionist and atheist writer Richard Dawkins caused a minor furore this weekend when he complained about not being able to bring his honey onto a plane in his carry-on luggage. “Bin Laden has won, in airports of the world every day,” Dawkins tweeted after his honey was thrown away by a security officer.

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.

It all started in 2006, British intelligence officials discovered a plot to blow up aeroplanes flying from Britain to the U.S. According to reports from the time, the plan revolved around using liquids taken onto the plane in hand luggage, using a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and chapatti flour.

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.

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