Holmes Report Blog

The Holmes Report blog focuses on news and issues of interest to public relations professionals. Our main site can be found at www.holmesreport.com.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Flight Risks, Part II: Matthew Yglesias at American Prospect has an eminently sane column about the new air travel restrictions that have become the subject of some debate here (see two posts below and numerous invective-filled comments) following my rant about the difficulty of leaving Britain last week.

Yglesias shares my view on these so-called "security" measures: “People have been allowed to carry liquid onto planes since time immemorial and we're clearly not awash in exploding aircraft. What's more, inconveniencing air travelers isn't simply a matter of inconvenience. The more hellishly annoying you make it to fly, the more people will drive, either by switching methods of getting to the same destination or by choosing closer destinations. And air travel remains—despite the risk of a bomb disguised as perfume—enormously safer than driving. Despite our best intentions, in other words, security can kill.”

In what is probably a forlorn attempt to bring this discussion back to the purported subject matter of this site, let me say that this discussion illustrates perfectly one of the great rules of risk communication: that people always more prone to outrage and over-reaction when a threat is acute and apparently beyond their control (terror threats against airlines) than chronic and at least perceptually within their control (car crashes).

Of course, it's probably important to note that Yglesias and I are both on the left of the political spectrum. I quite understand that those on the right—on both sides of the Atlantic—are unlikely to share my views on the correct balance between personal freedoms and “security," and it was naive of me not to realize how politically charged this subject is.

On that note, I’ll leave the last word, until my detractors return to post their (largely anonymous) disagreement, to Yglesias: “In moments of political peril the administration has consistently found that its interests are served by fostering a climate of panic and paranoia—blowing the risks of conventional terrorism all out of proportion in search of improved poll numbers and drastic enhancements in executive power. At best, this results in waste of resources. At its worst, it does direct harm—shredding the Constitution, destabilizing the Middle East, radicalizing the world's Muslim populations, and encouraging potential adversaries to unite against us, all while accomplishing nothing to reduce the genuine risk.”

ADD: Count Slate's Bill Saletan as another skeptic when it comes to extreme security measures. Indeed, Saletan has discovered levels of absurdity beyond those I encountered: "At Dulles, a passenger was ordered to peel her banana. Do you think somebody capable of hiding an explosive inside a banana peel isn't capable of hiding it inside the banana?"

Saletan's conclusion, which echoes my preference for the traditional stiff upper-lip over last week's hysteria: "In a liquid world, you can't seal off evil... You need resilience. You can't be untouchable, but you can be undefeated."

WEDNESDAY MORNING ADD: Here are some Guardian readers who share my perspective. I particularly like the last guy’s description of the new measures as “security threatre” rather than “security threats.” (More, from the Guardian blog, here).

Meanwhile, over at the Wall Street Journal (of all places) a columnist echoes some of my points from below.

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