by | Dec 27, 2009 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

About 20 minutes from landing in Detroit, a passenger on a Northwest flight attempted to ignite something. An explosive was strapped to his leg. A popping sound was heard. His pants caught on fire. The cabin crew and a few passengers subdued him. The plane landed. The man was arrested.

And so it starts again, like a spot on an X-ray, the worry, the what-ifs? We are not finally safe and this is not finally over. And the truth is it never was and it never will be. There is no way to protect an airplane from every pocket, strap, tape, electronic, powder, liquid or human orifice a maniac can use to make it deadly. One of these times, something will get through.

Luckily, this was not the time.

The facts above are based on witness accounts shared with the media after the Christmas Day flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. The suspect, a 23-year-old Nigerian named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is in custody. And now every hour brings a new version of the story. He was connected to Al Qaeda or he wasn’t. He was on a no-fly list or he wasn’t.

We will not get the truth about this guy for a while. That’s how it works.

But we can take something from this near-disaster if we’re smart. Updated security is important

We can start with the fact that airplane security is still largely a joke. Anyone in the business will tell you there are machines out there that we aren’t using, technology that can detect explosive substances, powders, liquids. Why aren’t they widespread? Take a guess. Money. Business.

There are higher-quality methods that our Transportation Security Administration isn’t using. Questioning. Profiling. Eye contact. The kind of stuff you go through for every flight in places such as Israel. Why aren’t we doing that? Take a guess. Money. Political correctness.

And, of course, even if we do our job perfectly in the United States, we can’t enforce the thoroughness of the country in which a terrorist might board.

I don’t know when the next incident will happen – I pray it never does – but I can promise you this. The first questions will begin with “How could…” As in “How could a guy on a no-fly list get on a plane?” Or “How could a device like that get through security?”

The fact is, for all the agencies, information, techniques and personnel to link together perfectly for every potential passenger – well, it’s impossible. Something is going to screw up. Someone is going to skip a step.

And something, eventually, will go boom. Refuse to be terrified

Which leads us to the one thing we actually can do about terrorism that would have a measurable effect on it.

Expect it.

Figure that it’s coming the way you know someone, somewhere, is going to shoot up his workplace. Someone, somewhere, will start a riot in a stadium. Someone, somewhere, will drive drunk and kill innocent people.

These are horrible events. We try hard to prevent them. But no amount of security, gun laws or alcohol warnings can keep them from happening completely. We accept this as a tragic part of life, but we still go on living.

Maybe the same needs to be done with terrorists who think airplanes are the way to unnerve our society. If we refuse to be terrified by these raging idiots, they lose their effectiveness. If and when the next airplane is victimized, our stock market doesn’t go south with worry and our politicians don’t go overboard with retaliation tactics, the terror is, to a large degree, neutered.

After all, what do these bombers want? It’s not as if they’re seeking a cessation of war, the return of a specific land or a specific prisoner release. What they want is mayhem. Hysteria. They want us stirred up with fear and hatred, which enables them to recruit larger masses to do their evil bidding.

We shouldn’t play into that. We should thank our stars that this incident was thwarted. We should unblock the money and politics that keeps our security hamstrung. And we should accept that someday, even with all that, something’s going to happen.

The more prepared we are for that day, the less terror it will wreak. And terror, for the enemy, is what it’s all about.

Contact MITCH ALBOM: 313-223-4581 or


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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