The Null Device


It looks like those bans on carry-on luggage on airliners could be here to stay, or at least until they find a way of detecting undetectable liquid explosives:

"A lot of these components are clear and have no smell and you could mix them on board. You do not need much explosive to bring down an aircraft," he said.
"The trouble with airport security measures is that a lot of machines do not spot a lot of explosives. It is still a case of dogs and people taking their clothes off."
And further down:
Airports and aeroplanes have been a key target for terrorists for decades. British-born Richard Reid tried to detonate a shoebomb on a transatlantic flight from Paris to Miami in late 2001. He was overpowered by passengers as he tried to ignite the explosives and was later jailed for life by a US court.
It looks like "shoebomb" is now a word.

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More details are emerging on the terrorist attacks allegedly thwarted: they involved liquid explosives, carried by British-born terrorists (some with Pakistani connections), who allegedly planned to blow up airliners in waves of three at a time, for the glory of God the All-Merciful. The authorities claim the attack would have caused loss of life on an "unprecedented scale", which (after 9/11) makes one wonder how many aircraft they planned to blow up.

Anyway, until further notice, passengers on flights leaving the UK are prohibited from taking carry-on luggage or liquids into the cabin, except for a few small things (passport, sanitary items, and baby milk, which must be tasted by the passenger in question on check-in). Certainly no books, MP3 players, games, laptops or PDAs. Which makes me glad I'm not flying to Australia (about 21 hours each way) any time soon.

Of course, medicines with prescriptions are exempted from the rules. I hope no terrorist manages to forge a prescription and bring along some liquid explosive in a medicine bottle.

On a related note, Charlie Stross points to this paper, which provides some perspective about the magnitude of the terrorist threat and the response to it:

Until 2001, far fewer Americans were killed in any grouping of years by all forms of international terrorism than were killed by lightning, and almost none of those terrorist deaths occurred within the United States itself. Even with the September 11 attacks included in the count, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism since the late 1960s (which is when the State Department began counting) is about the same as the number ofAmericans killed over the same period by lightning, accident-causing deer, or severe allergic reaction to peanuts.
it would seem to be reasonable for those in charge of our safety to inform the public about how many airliners would have to crash before flying becomes as dangerous asdriving the same distance in an automobile. It turns out that someone has made that calculation: there would have to be one set of September 11 crashes a month for the risks to balance out. More generally, they calculate thatan American's chance of being killed in one nonstop airline flight is about one in 13 million (even taking the September 11 crashes into account). To reach that same level of risk when driving on America's safest roads -- rural interstate highways -- one would have to travel a mere 11.2 miles.
Accordingly, three key issues, set out by risk analyst Howard Kunreuther, require careful discussion but do not seem ever to get it:
  • How much should we be willing to pay for a small reduction in probabilities that are already extremely low?
  • How much should we be willing to pay for actions that are primarily reassuring but do little to change the actual risk?
  • How can measures such as strengthening the public health system, which provide much broader benefits than those against terrorism, get the attention they deserve?

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Police and MI5 claim to have foiled a terrorist plot to blow up airliners, arresting 18 people. The principal plotters are said to be all British-born. The UK is at its highest terrorist alert state, "critical" (meaning "This is it we're all going to die! I'm a teapot, I'm a teapot!"), incoming flights have been suspended, as have some outgoing flights, and for the foreseeable future, passengers flying out of the UK will not be able to take luggage into the cabin.

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