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.

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.

We're living in a liquid world. All the solid lines—states, borders, battlefronts—are melting. British Home Secretary John Reid made that point in a speech yesterday. Then he reassured Britons that their government, through tougher immigration control, was protecting them from terrorists, "many of whom come from far beyond our shores and have no real connection with our nation."

Nice try. According to reports, all 20 or so alleged conspirators arrested in the new plot are British citizens. Sealing your borders won't protect you.

So, what do we do? As Reid put it,

What happens when the threat to our nation, and hence to all of us as individuals, comes not from a fascist state but from what might be called fascist individuals? Individuals who are unconstrained by any of the international conventions, laws agreements or standards, and have therefore, unconstrained intent? Individuals who can network courtesy of new technology and access modern chemical, biological and other means of mass destruction, and who have therefore unconstrained capability?

The answer is, some of us die. And the rest of us grieve, but we go on, doing our best to fight the bad guys and heal the world. The grieving and fighting and healing never end the dying. "We are probably in the most sustained period of severe threat since the end of World War II," Reid observed. "While I am confident that the Security Services and Police will deliver 100% effort and 100% dedication, they can never guarantee 100% success."

That's the bottom line: We die. In a liquid world, you can't seal off evil. All you can do is fight liquid with liquid. You have to absorb the tragedy, flowing around and through it. You need the strength of a river, not a rock. You need resilience. You can't be untouchable, but you can be undefeated.

Reid ended his speech with a quote from Charles Darwin: "It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change." It isn't the individual who has to adapt and survive. It's the species.