Found via BoingBoing: Cryptology/security maven Bruce Schneier writes about a recent incident in Australia wherein an airline attendant found an airsickness bag in a lavatory with the letters “BOB” written on it. She immediately concluded that this stood for “Bomb On Board” and had the captain return the plane to the ground. And we’re not talking about just a simple landing, we’re talking about emergency procedures, emergency crews standing by, 150,000 litres of fuel being dumped, US$140,000 to US$700,000 in expense incurred, the whole shebang.

I can only shake my head in sadness at the whole thing. It’s only the latest indicator that we’ve worked ourselves into such a state of hysteria that we jump at shadows. Someone writes his name on his barf bag and drops it in the toilet, and it’s suddenly a credible indicator of a terrorist threat. Why??? What terrorist, if he had planted a bomb on an airplane, would choose such a roundabout method of making it known—a method that depends on a flight attendant jumping to conclusions, I might add? Even if the flight attendant didn’t know better, I would think the captain should have.

I say only the latest indicator, as there’s another one that’s been making the rounds recently. Women’s Wall Street reporter Annie Jacobsen was on a flight with a group of Syrians who turned out to be members of a band, and was terrified during the flight by what she felt was suspicious behavior on their part…and subsequently wrote an over-dramatic article about the experience, and a few days later, a follow-up. The story was a three day wonder in the media, who were sucked right in by its scaremongering sensationalism; even BoingBoing picked it up about a week after the fact without even bothering to do any fact-checking on it. But the fact is, there wasn’t anything to it. The men were what they claimed to be…members of a band en route to perform at a Las Vegas casino. They went there, they performed, and presumably they flew back again. The US Air Marshals on the flight were rather ticked with Ms. Jacobsen over it. And yet, she still stands up there on her podium, preaching distrust and fear. Patrick Smith, the pseuonymous airline pilot who writes the “Ask the Pilot” column for Salon.com, wrote a pair of rebutting articles pointing out the fallacies better than I can.

Of course, we’ve always been a bit panicky about airline travel, at least in recent decades. 9/11/01 and attendant security restrictions only served to magnify that fear, not create it from nothing. That airline travel is, mile for mile, safer than driving has been repeated so often that it’s become a cliché, but we still feel this irrational fear. Gregory Benford wrote a great article on risk assessment which touched upon fear of flying, back in the September 2000 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction. (The article is available here, but you need to have logged into EBSCOhost (see if your local public or school library subscribes) to access it.) I think it’s more true now, in the post-9/11 era, than it was even then.

Benford wrote, in part:

We instinctively dislike stories that lower our estimate of what human lives mean. Audiences prefer dramas about rich, beautiful, powerful people, rather than barflies and beggars — these people matter. Similarly, we deplore disasters that seem to rob us of our self worth.

In ancient times, weather and the gods made disasters. Now we make them, for we are lords of the biosphere.

I propose that the myriad small deaths from disease, tornadoes, falls, or even from train wrecks, all seem to us “natural.” Dying of something nature makes, whether it’s a microbe or a meteor, has about it a strange sense of harmony. This at least carries a freight of consoling meaning: And eventually we assign old, familiar technology to the category of “natural.”

Death from new technology that we do not understand carries a taint of being self-inflicted, almost of unintentional suicide. This is especially true if we cannot control the new technology personally, relying on unseen experts — that pilot up ahead in the cockpit, say.

Techno-accident demeans all life by making it appear trivially spent.

Another aspect: It may well be that the most important feature of modern times is not technology, but the fact that we dwell in the first era in which atheist ideas are commonly (though not universally) accepted.

Disaster means something if it comes from God or, failing that, at least from nature. Techno-disasters can’t be rationalized this way, because we have only ourselves to blame.

So, deploring the public’s irrational views of risk, as some number-crunching experts do, can miss a vital point. People seek to invest event with meaning — they want more from risk assessment than body counts.

And if they die in their cars, while in full control — well, that’s life, isn’t it?

To use another hoary old cliché, the first step to solving a problem is admitting that we have one. So, we should just admit it: we’re irrationally afraid of flying. We’re scared of being out of control, putting ourselves at the mercy of people we don’t even know, utilizing a technology we (as passengers) don’t fully understand. We’re even more scared when we see the bogeyman of the Evil Middle-Eastern Terrorist lurking in every other seat. We need to recognize we have that problem, and then we need to get over it.

As long as we allow ourselves to be spooked by barf bags (or, as in Ms. Jacobsen’s article, McDonald’s bags), then, to use one final cliché (last one, I promise), the terrorists have already won.

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