Friday, November 6, 2015

Aviation Security and Ignorance in the Land of Make Believe

We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers. - Carl Sagan

Ask courageous questions. Pay attention for the wisdom that follows. – Steve Broe

The #1206 “fiction” series continues …

The gentle sway and clack-clack-clack of the train as it left Penn Station in New York lulled Gabriel into a gentle stupor.  “Tickets out please, tickets”, said the conductor as he walked past Gabriel, noted the monthly pass held in Gabriel’s hand, stuck a receipt stub in the clip on the wall and moved on to the next car.

Gabriel didn’t resist the sleep that was quickly overtaking him, offering relief and escape from the difficult day that he had experienced.

He wasn’t sure how long he had been asleep when he was suddenly jarred awake, feeling the train shaking and rocking from side to side.  In a half-awake, half-asleep stupor, he looked out the window and realized that the train was traveling much faster than it usually did.

Gabriel glanced around in a panic, hoping to find a conductor to see if there was anything wrong.  He spotted a conductor he didn’t recognize in the last seat of the car, resting calmly and seemingly oblivious to the condition of the train.

Gabriel stood up and steadied himself against the seats as he made his way up the aisle towards the conductor.  The conductor seemed to be asleep so Gabriel cleared his throat and then reached down and touched the conductor on the shoulder.

The conductor stirred and looked up at Gabriel.  “Yes?”, he asked.

“The train seems to be going very fast”, said Gabriel, “And I was wondering if everything was ok with it.”

The conductor squinted for a moment before peering through the window out into the dark night.  “Seems to me like we are on a run-away train that is out of control”, he observed dryly, “Not much you can do about it now.”  The conductor pulled his hat down over his eyes and stretched out as if to resume his slumber.

Gabriel poked at him with alarm.  “Out of control?”, he asked, “How can you remain so calm if that’s the case?”

The conductor sat up and looked at Gabriel with a rough look.  “You never cared about the train before”, he said, “Why should you care about it now?”

“Never cared about the train?”, asked Gabriel, “What the hell are you talking about?  What could I do about the train?”

“And besides”, said Gabriel, “Why would I care about this train unless I am on it?”

“Ahhhhh”, said the conductor, “So it only matters if you are directly affected.  Typical.  Everyone is always innocent, indifferent or ignorant until they are affected and then they demand instant solutions.”

“Funny thing, though”, grunted the conductor as he leaned forward and looked Gabriel in the eye, “When people like you demand answers, you believe everything we tell you, even if the solution we chose or the explanation we offer doesn’t make the train any safer.  What if I told you that the train is running out of control because you demanded so much from it that we had no time to perform proper maintenance on it?”

The conductor paused for a moment before continuing.

“So what if I told you that the reason the train is out of control is entirely your fault?”

“Why, that’s preposterous”, expostulated Gabriel, “How dare you blame me for your train’s maintenance issues?”

“Really?”, asked the conductor, “Let’s see now.”

He leaned over and grabbed a newspaper sitting on the seat across from him.  The headline on the front page screamed about the possibility of a bomb on the Russian commercial flight flying out of the Sinai and the possibility of Homeland Security changing its screening procedures as a result.

He pointed at the headline with a thick index finger.

“Here’s a perfect example”, he said, “Understand the difference between cause and effect here and the notion of treating symptoms instead of diseases.  If Homeland Security improves its handling of baggage on the plane, will it reduce the chance of a bomb being placed on another aircraft?”

“Of course”, said Gabriel, “We will …..”

The conductor interrupted him with a dismissive wave of his hand.  “Spare me the propaganda lecture”, he said impatiently, “Such actions only prevent the amateur from getting a bomb on the plane.  Professionals will always be able to get one on the plane and in fact, the only thing that makes you secure as a passenger is not because the security measures are so good but rather, because professionals have chosen not to do anything evil at the moment.  As for shipping luggage alone in a separate aircraft, that will make the cost of travel prohibitive and so that’s not an option either.  So you can’t keep the processes you have and there isn’t a guaranteed-safe, economically-viable option available to you.  How does that make you feel?”

“That is ridiculous”, explained Gabriel, “We …”

Again, the conductor waved him off impatiently.

“The fact that you don’t know this is more a reflection of your own ignorance than that of the people who deliver feel-good propaganda drivel in your direction.  Do you know how easy it is for employees, baggage handlers and the like to get explosives into the secure areas and subsequently into the cargo hold of an aircraft?”, asked the conductor.

Gabriel shrugged.

“Very”, replied the conductor and he proceeded to explain how it was accomplished.  When he was done, he explained how to draw pilots out of the secure cockpit, thus allowing hijackers to take over the cockpit “911-style”.

“The aviation and security industries don’t like to talk about this”, the conductor concluded, “because they figure it will be bad for business.”

He chuckled at his own joke and then sat quietly.

Gabriel suddenly felt nauseous and weak and sat down across from the conductor.

The conductor thumbed through the newspaper nonchalantly, while muttering “Tsk tsk tsk …. always addressing the symptom instead of the disease”.

“Ahhhh”, he said, “Here’s another example.  Police and community groups across Canada and the US are now revealing so-called exciting new programs to stop the Islamic radicalization of young people.  It has all kinds of neat ideas such as 1-800 numbers to call if you suspect someone is being influenced, follow-up counselling for the person in question and the like.  It’s all well and good but by the time you notice someone is being influenced, they’ve already experienced childhood difficulties like abuse or bullying, mental illness or other things that open the door for the youth to be exploited by a professional recruiter.  So the challenge is not to prevent the radicalization but to prevent the difficulties that set the young person up to be radicalized in the first place.”

The conductor paused for a moment before continuing.

“So you can address the complex issues at the core of a problem or you can dismiss them as unsolvable, too expensive or too time consuming and promote a feel-good thing instead that helps people feel safer but which in fact does absolutely nothing for your safety or security.”

“Think of it like this”, observed the conductor, “If you are told that you are tired because of cancer, do you treat the cancer itself or ask for uppers to help counter the fatigue, acknowledging that the latter gives short-term immediate relief and is much easier to do but will eventually cause you to die anyway?”

“You treat the cancer, of course”, said Gabriel.

“Exactly”, replied the conductor.

He pulled out a pocket watch, squinted at it for a moment and then tucked it back in his pocket.

“You’re almost at the end of the line”, he said.

“But we’re running out of control”, exclaimed Gabriel, “What happens when we reach the end of the line?”

“Well, that all depends”, replied the conductor, “It depends on what you do.”

“What I do?”, asked Gabriel incredulously.

“Yup”, the conductor said as he stood up, stretched, open the door between the cars and left the car.

Gabriel dazedly watched the door close and then, shaking himself from his stupor, grabbed the door handle to open the door.

It was locked.

He felt his heart start to race as the train rocked more when suddenly there was a loud squealing of steel wheels on steel rails and he felt the car he was in lifting into the air.

And suddenly he was awake, being shaken by the conductor.

“Last stop coming up”, the conductor said, “End of the line.”

Gabriel rubbed his eyes sleepily and thought.

“End of the line?”, he asked.

“Yup”, replied the conductor.

To be continued.

© 2015 – Harry Tucker – All Rights Reserved

Afterword – Humanity: The Weakest Link

“It is a beautiful, sunny day”, he thought as he strode around the airfields at a small, nondescript airport a couple of hours drive from the city where he lived.  A buddy of his had offered to take him sightseeing today, with a short stop at the main airport in the city to run a few errands before flying back in the evening.  While he waited, he wandered the airport grounds with the permission of his friend.

“I have my own errand to run in the city”, he thought as he squeezed the handle of the briefcase he was carrying.

He glanced at his watch, calculating when he would arrive at the larger airport.  He hoped his friend in baggage handling would be there as planned.

He squinted as he looked up into the sun.

It was a beautiful day indeed.


The story the conductor told to Gabriel about compromising aircraft security is real.  I intentionally do not share the details here although I hint in the afterward about one of several scenarios.  Find someone you know in aviation security who trusts you and ask them if it is possible.  Ask questions about things these articles:

You won’t like the answer.

We always insist on treating symptoms instead of diseases in society, primarily because feel-good stuff can be produced much quicker and cheaper than real solutions.  Unfortunately, feel-good stuff protects us against the amateur and the deranged but never against the professional.

Accountability and responsibility aren’t about helping us feel better about something – they are about us knowing that we are safer because we have addressed the core problems.

Until we address core problems, we must not act surprised when our safety and security is compromised in the future.

When someone gives us a feel-good solution instead of a real one, whose fault is it when the solution that solves nothing is implemented – the person who implemented it or the person who accepted it unquestioningly?

You probably won’t like the answer to that question either.

But that’s the interesting thing about reality.

It doesn’t care what you think – it is only influenced by what you do and what you allow others to do.

And the other truth about reality is that whenever humans are involved, the greed, ignorance and twisted motivation of some people will always be the weakest link, no matter what people say to the contrary.

Series Origin

This series, a departure from my usual musings, is inspired as a result of conversations with former senior advisors to multiple Presidents of the United States, senior officers in the US Military and other interesting folks as well as my own professional background as a Wall St. / Fortune 25 strategy advisor and large-scale technology architect.

While this musing is just “fiction” (note the quotes) and a departure from my musings on technology, strategy, politics and society, as a strategy guy, I do everything for a reason and with a measurable outcome in mind. :-)

This “fictional” musing is a continuation of the #1206 series noted here.

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