June 24 2002


June 24 2002

Zero tolerance is silly


Faced with terrorist threats, Western security services are hampered by the absurd notions with which we burden them

Barbara Amiel

On the day that President Bush announced he wanted a new US$35.5 billion Department of Homeland Security, I was on a British Airways Concorde, lying on the floor, still strapped in my comfy but upended seat, legs in the air. During the near vertical takeoff, my row of seats had detached and flipped over backwards.

Later, the flight engineer explained that in the past he could repair the problem, but these days he wasn’t allowed to carry tools. This struck me as odd since engineers are aboard to “fix” things if something goes awry. “Were trying to negotiate a basic tool box somewhere on the flight deck,” he said, apologetically. I would have offered him my cuticle scissors as a standby screwdriver, but unfortunately they had been seized by vigilant security when I was boarding. One could imagine a hijacker rushing to the front of the plane only to discover he needed my manicure set to complete his mission.

Listening to Bush didn’t reassure me.

He wants an agency that will analyze all the information collected about threats to America. His new department may be the answer, and I pray it will be, but I feel like Charlie Brown with a black cloud over my head.

The expression du jour is “turf wars. ” One big agency jealously guards information on the grounds that only its people are truly competent to solve the problem. Bush’s new super agency, which would subsume Immigration and Naturalization, the Secret Service, the Coast Guard, among other agencies, would not include the FBI, the CIA, or the National Security Agency which are already super agencies themselves. One can’t help thinking that if America were suffering from an insufficiency of turf wars, then this new department might well be the answer.

What hampers Western security services is not the lack of a central clearing house for information, but the silly notions with which we burden them. We should start by jettisoning ideas such as “zero tolerance.” Zero tolerance is the bureaucratic elimination of common sense. It makes a mockery of anything to which it is applied—whether drugs, speeding or security. Zero tolerance means kids get busted at school for having an Aspirin in their backpacks and flight crews having to eat with plastic utensils. Zero tolerance adds delay and confusion to lives, accomplishing half the terrorists’ goals by spiking up economic costs and frayed nerves without providing one iota more security. In columnist George F. Will’s phrase, we should have “zero tolerance for zero tolerance.”

Political correctness is our second problem. We do need to use profiling in all security conscious areas from apartment

buildings to docklands. The most likely terrorist suspects can be screened on the basis of age, gender, ethnicity and religion. It is nonsense to pay attention (and cost) to, as Mark Steyn euphonically put it, the “87-year-old arthritic nun.” Our political correctness also demands equality in a functional sense: plane crews are treated the same as passengers. Recently, a uniformed commercial pilot was asked to remove his cap for a search. He pointed to the man that had preceded him who was wearing a turban. “I’ll remove my cap,” he said, “if he removes his turban.” The pilot passed through without doffing his headgear, but he still had to denude himself of a nail file in his toiletries bag and a proper knife to eat his dinner. Once security has broken down to the point where the hijacker has penetrated the cockpit, the terrorist would hardly be relying on a pilot’s eating utensil to finish the job.

Meanwhile, we lack explosives detectors to screen luggage.

We don’t have substance-sniffing dogs at most airports. We don’t, unlike El AÍ, place cargo in decompression chambers so that barometric bombs can’t be used. We haven’t got armour-plated baggage containers. Recently, in a Manhattan office complex, I watched a security guard question matrons to see if they had an appointment in the hairdressing salon on the second floor. Anyone could make an appointment in any name and be ushered into the elevators. And the bucket-andbrush cleaning brigade come and go unquestioned.

If his new agency is to work, Bush will have to overcome the natural “intraspecific aggression” (to use Konrad Lorenz’s phrase) that bureaucracies have for each other. That’s the impulse you see when dogs let people walk by, but bristle on seeing another dog. Unless you clamp right down on a bureaucratic culture it will spend more time watching over its turf rather than the enemy. Bush should probably replace all the top people in the agencies he is bringing together with those who understand how to manage organizational cultures.

It’s possible the President does understand this, but it’s equally possibly that columnist John O’Sullivan’s anecdote from his days as policy adviser to Margaret Thatcher is to the point. “What do you mean you’re establishing a special department for it,” Mrs. Thatcher is supposed to have shouted at some hapless cabinet minister. “I told you to deal with the problem not make it worse. Once we have an entire government department whose size, pay and perquisites depend upon the existence of the problem, well never get rid of it.” The newest super agency will need to manage bureaucratic discord—not thrive on it.