Thank Terrorists When Airport Screeners Grope

Nov. 24 (Bloomberg) -- Hillary Clinton's opponents are ready to lob frozen turkeys at the secretary of state after she opined about airport pat-downs on a Sunday talk show.

Asked if the procedure is necessary, Clinton said, "You know, we're doing this because the terrorists keep getting more creative about what they do to hide explosives and, you know, crazy things like underwear." Then she added, "So, there is a need."

The turkey lobbers got even more wound up by her response when asked whether she would submit to a pat-down. "Not if I could avoid it. No, I mean who would?" she said.

These responses demonstrate exquisite hypocrisy, according to her critics. In this case, though, Clinton is right. No one wants to submit to a body search. It's just that these days, we can't avoid it. People do want to attack us. They do apparently conceal Pentaerythritol tetranitrate and other explosives on their bodies from time to time.

With her underwear reference, Clinton was recalling a real terror event, not a hypothetical: the effort by a man with explosives sewn into his underwear to bring down a commercial airliner over Detroit during last year's holiday season. An al-Qaeda group that claimed responsibility for the incident said it had tested a "new kind of explosives," which had "passed through security." Warnings don't come clearer than that.

The hostility to Clinton's remarks reminds us of several things. The administration's weakness in foreign policy comes first to mind. Clinton's dealings with states that back terrorism, like Iran, have given such regimes precious time to build up their nuclear arsenal, or plot against the U.S.

Terrorism Tactics

President Barack Obama in May introduced his security strategy for the nation. The plan said the U.S. would always seek to delegitimize terror, yet it concluded: This is not a global war against a tactic -- terrorism -- or a religion -- Islam.'' So the War on Terror is over. It's just that somebody forgot to tell the underwear bombers -- and the Transportation Security Administration. One senses that Clinton is farther along the learning curve here than Obama. Insofar as she pulls him up behind her, that's good.

The second thing this underclothes exchange reminds us of is the weak logic of the libertarian right. Libertarians target the TSA as the enemy. This year it is popular to argue that the incremental rise of government represented by the TSA and other institutions will gradually overshadow our democracy. The philosopher they cite is Friedrich August von Hayek, the author of "The Road to Serfdom."

Protecting Freedom

Yet those who talk about the road to serfdom tend to forget that Hayek himself recognized that sometimes freedom now has to be compromised in order to protect democracy, and hopefully, a future for freedom. During World War II Hayek did not go around the streets of Cambridge, England, carrying "No More War" posters. He went up to the roofs of the university town to volunteer as an air warden and do his part in protecting the country that had taken him in.

Those, left or right, who fault Clinton should note how difficult most of the trade-offs are these days. The Obama administration has opted to move trials of suspected terrorists out of military tribunals and into American courts. Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the suspect in the Detroit underwear bombing case, was charged in U.S. District court.

Obama's critics said that by making it clear to Abdulmutallab that he would have the rights of any American in court, the government also made it possible for him to go silent about the possible terror attacks of the next Christmas season. The libertarian crowd is so concerned with freedom it applaudes companies that make underwear inserts to protect their intimate parts from the view of TSA screening machines. That sounds like fun, but the energy is misplaced.

Terrorism's Toll

What's going on is a kind of collective temper tantrum over the duration of the struggles with al-Qaeda. For almost a decade, it's been harder to mail letters, cross the border into Canada to ski or hop on a plane to anywhere. That feels too long. We knew we could do without certain freedoms for 1 year; 10 years is another matter.

Nor are Americans alone in losing something. One of the great symbols of new post-Cold War freedom was the construction of a glass dome with a glass floor over the Reichstag. Visitors to the German parliament building enjoyed the liberating experience of watching as their lawmakers wrote laws below. German parliamentarians for their part were humbled by the action of making law beneath their own citizen's feet.

This architectural tribute to democracy is also now a casualty of terror. The government made the cupola off limits after warnings Berlin is being targeted.

But wishing terrorists away does not mean they will go away. It's a form of narcissism, left or right variety, to assume that the ability to extinguish al-Qaeda lies within the capacities of those who sit down at America's Thanksgiving tables. Clinton's defense of scanning wasn't weakness. It was an honest acknowledgement of what has turned out to be, alas, a long-term problem.

(Amity Shlaes, senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Amity Shlaes at

To contact the editor responsible for this column: James Greiff at

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