The gentle essayist E.B. White once wrote of his dog Fred that he pursued each day “with the complete conviction that through vigilance and good work all porcupines, all cats, all skunks, all squirrels, all houseflies, all footballs, all evil birds in the sky could successfully be brought to account and the scene made safe and pleasant for the sensible individual–namely, him. However distorted was his crazy vision of the beautiful world, however perverse his scheme for establishing an order of goodness by murdering every creature that seemed to him bad, I had to hand him this: he really worked at it.”
Fred is weighing on my mind because of a story that has received very little publicity here: In early December, some knuckleheaded police at Paris’s Charles de Gaulle Airport planted a packet of plastic explosives in an innocent passenger’s suitcase, “chosen at random.” It was part of a training exercise for an equally knuckleheaded bomb-sniffing dog. The dog flunked the test, the suitcase went skittling down the conveyor belt, and it was apparently loaded onto a plane destined for parts unknown. The police are still looking for the dark-blue bag: “We hope the person who finds this will take it to the local authorities…. We hope they don’t throw it away.”
If ever there was an object lesson illustrating the need both for sane oversight of security measures and for the vigilant upholding of civil rights and liberties, this would have to be it. Since at least three of the planes upon which the missing bag might have been placed were headed to the United States, I can’t help musing about it as some kind of cross between great law school hypothetical and bad action movie: How many tort cases? Let me count the ways…
The explosives didn’t have a detonator so “are not thought to pose a danger” but if detonated “would probably be enough to blow a door from a car.” So question number one: Why haven’t all air carriers reinforced baggage compartments to make them relatively bombproof (as has El Al, with life-saving results)? And while we’re thinking about it, why not reinforce cockpit doors rather than just handing pilots guns? But that’s been asked before, and I guess it comes down to money, and airlines don’t have any and Congress isn’t about to subsidize anything so constructive, not while the Punxsutawney Groundhog Museum and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame need porky embellishment.
But looking on the bright side, the bomb didn’t explode. Or hasn’t yet. So I’m trying to imagine what the average Joe would do if he opened his suitcase and found a “mobile-phone-size lump of plastic explosives” therein. Would the ordinary lay person even know what it was? Would it be unreasonable for said person to dispose of it as mysterious trash, to toss it down the incinerator in a large building, say, or perhaps leave it lying unnoticed at the bottom of a suitcase, under the bed or in the back of a closet, till a hot summer day warmed it up? Would the children in the family enjoy tossing it around like a ball? If you were not an American citizen, unable to account for its presence in your possessions, would you not be very, very frightened of bringing it to suspicious authorities, even assuming you did have an inkling of what it might be?