The liquid world.

Science, technology, and life.
Aug. 10 2006 6:22 PM

The Liquid World

How to survive in an age of death.

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Passengers wait at Heathrow Airport. Click image to expand.
Passengers wait at Heathrow Airport

Twelve days ago, I flew from London's Heathrow Airport to Washington's Dulles airport. In my shoulder bag, I had two bottles of water and a portable alarm clock. If the security officers at Heathrow had taken my alarm clock and my bottles, I still had a wristwatch and a tube of toothpaste. If they'd taken those, I had butterscotch candies and three pens full of ink. If they'd taken those, I had a container of prescribed pills and a key that unlocks my car by remote control.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

You want to stop people from blowing up planes with sophisticated explosives and detonators? Start confiscating pills and car keys.

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That's my reaction to the news that we've foiled a plot involving fluid explosives and flash cameras. Airport security teams are confiscating liquids, gels, and lotions. Britain is banning iPods and cell phones. 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?

The new no-liquid rules make an exception for prescription medicine. Do you think I can't make a prescription label on the color printer at my office? Do you think I can't empty and refill capsules?

How will you check my key to make sure it operates my car? Will you take it at the security gate? Will you make people leave their car keys at the airport?

Security machines screen for metal, not liquids. To catch liquids, officials say they'll frisk more passengers. But people already carry illegal drugs onto planes by sealing them in plastic bags and swallowing them or hiding them in body cavities. How many cavities do we plan to search?

The government says it's developing gizmos to spot liquid densities characteristic of explosives. Good luck. In the abandoned 1990s "Bojinka" plot, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Yousef left behind dolls with explosive nitrocellulose in their clothes. Show me the gizmo that can catch that. Take my water, and I've still got my clothes.

President Bush praises the "solid" investigation that uncovered the plot. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says the British did it by following "threads." Attorney General Alberto Gonzales says we're working "to dismantle these terrorist cells before an attack occurs." Kip Hawley, the head of the Transportation Security Agency, says liquid explosives are "on our radar screen."

These are the metaphors of a bygone age. Nothing is solid for sure anymore, not even bombs. Between terrorist cells, there are often no threads. No dismantling is final. Radar's lousy in water.

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