Guest Opinion: Terror at the airport

USA Today
June 30
Stock image

Before Independence Day 2002, the first after 9/11, the White House issued this message:  “As Americans gather for July 4th it will be a time of both celebration and vigilance."

Almost 15 years later, the nation’s mood was much the same as it headed into another patriotic holiday weekend. Americans rejoiced in their freedom but remained on alert after the latest deadly terrorist attack, this one on the international airport in Istanbul.

Terrorism has become even more difficult to prevent as Islamic State fanatics, some operating as lone wolves, have widened their hunting grounds to nightclubs, restaurants, train stations and subways — any place where people gather with scant security.

Still, a decade and a half after the 9/11 hijackings, terrorists seem fixated on aviation. With jetliners now far more secure, they attack airports instead, first in Brussels and now Istanbul. Protecting these crowded spaces and learning from each attack are essential.

As CIA Director John Brennan told Yahoo News,  “I’d be surprised if (the Islamic State) is not trying to carry out that kind of attack in the United States.” The comment is less of a prediction than a statement of reality.

In the wake of Brussels and Istanbul, adding more armed police at the doors of major U.S. airports is smart. (Ataturk had moved its first line of security to the front doors, and the roving armed guards likely prevented even greater carnage.) Los Angeles and Atlanta, home of two the nation’s busiest airports, have promised to harden security at their airports, while looking at lessons to be learned from Istanbul. At Los Angeles International, police also check vans, stop cars at random and watch for suspicious activities on the airport’s access road. Roving armed security patrols, a bigger presence of canine units, and police checks on access would all provide deterrence.

The federal Transportation Security Administration, whose main job is checking passengers and baggage, has a particular responsibility to keep the lines moving at checkpoints, to prevent the lines themselves from becoming the ripest targets. Wait times, a problem in the spring, have been reduced considerably, the TSA says.

TSA can also expand use of its so-called VIPR teams, which include bomb-sniffing dogs and armed U.S. marshals, to patrol airports. But all these steps cost money, so the ultimate decision on how much extra security will be added, and for how long, is really up to Congress or state and local governments.

Terrorists willing to commit suicide are, of course, particularly difficult to stop: They can strike anywhere at anytime because they are not even looking for an escape route. Plug one security gap, and they will pop up elsewhere.

Not every soft target can be protected, and the best defense remains a good offense. Only a multi-pronged attack on the Islamic State can hope to keep America safe. That means hitting its leaders in Syria and Iraq or wherever they lurk to orchestrate or incite violence. It means strangling their finances and countering their propaganda. And it means anticipating their moves through intelligence.

While each terrorist attack, and every life lost, is a tragedy, America’s record on thwarting attacks is an enviable one. Nearly 90 Islamist terrorist plots have been hatched against the U.S. since 9/11, but more than 85 percent have been foiled, according to a count kept by the Heritage Foundation.

Americans should celebrate knowing that they enjoy the freedoms that the terrorists despise.