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Ken Adelman
Political advisor

Ken Adelman

A Reagan-era Ambassador and Arms Control Director, Ken Adelman is co-founder and vice-president of Movers and Shakespeares, which offers executive training and leadership development.

Let's end terrorism hysteria

Question: It's now obvious that Homeland Security officials misjudged the public reaction to new airport security measures. What should leaders do when confronted with widespread backlash against a decision they still believe to be sound and in which they have invested considerable money and reputation? Should the TSA try to weather the storm or plot a strategic retreat?

Rather than "steady as she goes," TSA should never have gone. Airport security should have been handled by contractors. If they did something really stupid--like groin-groping--they could be fired. Government folks can't. Plus, then government would be a step removed from glaring stupidity and not directly responsible for it, which further inflames nowadays' anti-government bonfires.

Yet there's a bigger problem: Americans' hysteria over home terrorism. Yes, it's important to prevent another 9/11-like attack. But we've already done that by: 1) securing the cockpit, thereby preventing the airplane from becoming a weapon of mass destruction, and 2) having alert, pumped-up passengers ready, in any takeover; "let's roll."

Because of these two, airport security has become a performance art. It reassures passengers they're safe. And it reinforces national hysteria over terrorism. Get real: some terrorist attack will come. Some people will be killed. But we'll survive.

Yearly auto accidents bring 33,000-plus deaths. That's a lot. Every time you turn the ignition key, you risk death. Yet you keep turning that key. You accept that risk, realizing it's a lot better than being grounded.

We need such a radical "attitude adjustment" on terrorism in general and airport security in particular. That would help end TSA's outlandish exploits, even if we can't end TSA.

By Ken Adelman

 |  November 22, 2010; 3:40 PM ET
Category:  Accomplishing Goals , Congressional leadership , Crisis leadership , Failures , Government leadership , Leadership weaknesses , Making mistakes , Managing Crises , Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Not the time to backtrack | Next: TSA--and politicians--need to make more unpopular decisions

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Former NFL great Bubba Smith when describing his art said he simply tackled the entire backfield and tossed out everyone until he found the guy with the ball. That's the TSA. Because our security policy is predicated on an overdose of political correctness, rather than focus on those who fit the profile of the bad guys, we gather everyone up, consider them all to be suspects, and put them all through the same process in hopes that we might find the guy with the ball. This makes little sense. We know what the bad guys look like, act like, smell like, etc. Call it profiling if you want but I consider it smart intelligence. To use another sports metaphor, we should demand that the TSA keep its eye on the ball rather than wasting its time and resources -- and ours -- tilting at windmills.

Posted by: POPS1 | November 24, 2010 2:11 PM
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If, as CHAOTICIAN101 asserts, that the campaign to stop terrorism is really only to do with money and that terrorist threats against US air industry were all resolved by securing cockpit doors, then presumably the efforts in Afghanistan are largely pointless. I just wonder if others would agree that 1) the air industry was made safe when the cockpit doors were strengthened and 2) that TSA and airport security is solely about money.

Whether the cockpit is secured or not, I for one don't relish the idea of flying knowing that some distant cabal is trying to plant bombs on planes. Personally, I prefer having the TSA in place and US intelligence agencies trying to sniff out terrorist plots over flying on a whim and prayer.

Posted by: 44fx2901 | November 24, 2010 11:57 AM
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Get serious! Nothing TSA is doing has anything to do with stopping terrorism! It is politics and money; BS and Money; creating petty bureacrats and money, avoiding responsibility and money; having power and money! With cockpit doors sealed, another 911 debacle can not occur; so the danger is less than before 911... so give up the stupidty already! Baaaaa!

Posted by: CHAOTICIAN101 | November 24, 2010 11:04 AM
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1) While I agree with stopping terrorism hysteria I disagree with you on several points.
2) While the cockpit has been secured, since 911 the attempts made on planes (eg shoe bomber, undies bomber) have not consisted of threats against the cockpit, but against the structural integrity of the plane itself.
3) TSA security certainly has an element of performance art about it, but it surely is more than just that. It does force would-be terrorists to think differently about how they might carry out their plans.
4) It is true that far more people are killed in car accidents than in terrorist plots. The death toll is not, so far as I can tell, the only thing that matters. Automobile accidents result from human frailties encountered while operating heavy, large, machines flying down the road. Terrorism results from the calculated actions of a cabal who intend on sowing dissension and fear. Apples and oranges. Government has instituted extensive reforms and regulated driving on a number of levels: a) safety requirements for equipment in cars (eg seat belts), b) restrictions on who can drive a car (licensing requirements), c) method of operation (traffic laws), d) limitations on driver behavior (drink driving laws). You get my point. Of course, TSA should continue to work to keep terrorists off planes. Scanning passengers and baggage should continue. The statistical model used by TSA to identify would be suspects also appears to work.
5) When all this was first mooted by the Bush Administration more thought should have gone into protecting privacy and selling it to the public.
6) Finally, I find your arguments above to wholly unconvincing. You show the same intellectual prowess that you used urging the US to invade Iraq. You are a supercilious bureaucrat with blood on your hands. Cake walk my a55!

Posted by: 44fx2901 | November 24, 2010 9:07 AM
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Closely aligns to my thoughts. There is never absolute safety in doing anything. The chances of a terrorist harm are so low as to be next to impossible. You are almost more likely to be struck by lightning than harmed by a terrorist. At this point the most they can do is damage a plane through stupidity. However, that is something that anybody with a small degree of creativity can do anyway, therefore, it is a waste of time to try and prevent it entirely.

The government should understand the law of diminishing returns. The money saved can be used to save far more lives in other ways. $42 Billion dollars can go a very, very long way towards solving a lot of problems.

That money could pay for over a 3 Million college tuitions each year. How many more lives would that save and people would that employ than wasting it on trying to catch something like 20-50 total foreign criminals.

Posted by: theartistpoet | November 23, 2010 11:58 PM
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Why are we only afraid of terrorism on airplanes? It just doesn't make any sense! There are millions of targets in the US and we choose to implement these absurd scanners at airports only? Mr. Adelman is exactly right. We are trying to prevent airplanes being used as weapons of mass destruction like with 9/11. We've done that. All of these other "security measures" are absurd and a violation of our constitutional rights.

Posted by: Peg__Jo | November 23, 2010 3:56 PM
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I cannot believe the stupid things this man has said. We should just accept that some planes will be blown up the way we accept car accidents. Is he serious? "Some people will be killed, but we'll survive." I think this entire post has disgusted me. How about he is on that plane that gets unfortunately hit by a terrorist. I wonder how he would feel about his chances then. Perhaps his best friend or his family member. Washington Post I know you are trying to provide all sides of the argument, but please do not let crazies with no respect for human life write articles. It only hurts your creditability.

Posted by: Kala85 | November 23, 2010 3:48 PM
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I cannot believe the stupid things this man has said. We should just accept that some planes will be blown up the way we accept car accidents. Is he serious? "Some people will be killed, but we'll survive." I think this entire post has disgusted me. How about he is on that plane that gets unfortunately hit by a terrorist. I wonder how he would feel about his chances then. Perhaps his best friend or his family member. Washington Post I know you are trying to provide all sides of the argument, but please do not let crazies with no respect for human life write articles. It only hurts your creditability.

Posted by: Kala85 | November 23, 2010 3:47 PM
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Ken Adelman is full of it, as usual. For example, he says," Airport security should have been handled by contractors.". Who will these contractors hire? Minimum wage folk, people who change jobs at the drop of a hat, since they are minimum wage anyway, people who cannot spell "security".
So he says that we should rely on passengers to provide security. Huh, so security is now the responsibility of grandmas, little children, the elderly, who may be seat mates to a terrorist.
His other point is that we accept deaths in automobiles, so terrorist bringing down a plane should be acceptable, too. What kind of logic is that. Is reaction to mass death merely a matter of numbers?
Stop this stupid oaf from giving his inane opinions on the Washington Post.

Posted by: Observer20 | November 23, 2010 2:03 PM
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Government workers can be and are fired.

Posted by: govworker1 | November 23, 2010 12:06 PM
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This summarizes my thoughts exactly.

I don't think the founders of America were interested in "safety at any cost, including liberty". Look at the numbers - we face a much greater risk of dying while crossing the street than we do from a terrorist attack. Our money might be better spent moving all the TSA personnel to street corners to act as crossing guards!

At the rate we're going, we may as well just submit ourselves to Sharia law - it's probably nicer than having our nether-regions rubbed by the government every time we step outside!

Posted by: antispy | November 23, 2010 10:24 AM
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