This is excerpt 2 from the book I'm writing on technology, terrorism, and my time at DHS, tentatively titled "Skating on Stilts." (If you want to read the excerpts in a more coherent fashion, try the category on the right labeled "excerpts from the book.") Comments and factual quibbles are welcome, either in the comments section or by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. If you're dying to order the book, send mail to the same address. I'm still looking for an agent and a publisher, so feel free to make recommendations on that score too.
Lots of technology is like the bicycle. It seems implausible at first. As Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Once we relax and learn to trust it, it really does give us new, nearly magical powers.
Then it starts finding new ways to kill us.
In a way, that’s what happened on September 11, 2001.
Technology – cheap commercial jet travel – made the attacks possible. In fact, it made attacks like September 11 more or less inevitable.
It may be hard to remember now, but air travel was once seen as the great technological achievement of the twentieth century. Futurists marveled at how it would change our world.
In 1907, as heavier-than-air flight was just becoming a reality, Alexander Graham Bell declared that it would not be long until “a man can take dinner in New York and breakfast the next morning in Liverpool.”
By the 1920s and 1930s, airplanes and air travel were to young men what computers became in the 1970s and 1980s – a way to revolutionize society, make a better world, and find a fortune. After World War II, the youngsters of the 20s and 30s set about building their dreams, and they succeeded.
As late as 1958, European flights were still a special event. That year, Life Magazine ran a feature story “Off for Paris in Jet Time,” describing a Pan Am flight from Idlewild (not yet LaGuardia) airport in New York. Actress Greer Garson was in “de luxe” class, along with 40 other passengers paying $909 for their round trip tickets. Another 71 economy passengers, dressed mostly in suit and tie, or dresses, also made the trip.
Fifty years after Bell envisioned trans-Atlantic travel, it was still remarkable enough to deserve a gushing feature in the pre-eminent magazine of the era.
That ended in 1959, when Boeing introduced its 707. The new jet cut flying time between New York and London from twelve hours to six. In an instant, international air travel went from luxury to commonplace. By 1965, 95 percent of transatlantic travelers were crossing in the fast jets of Pan Am and European airlines such as British Overseas Air.
In the 70s, Boeing introduced the jumbo jet. By then, jet travel had lost any resemblance to magic and had acquired an unfortunately close resemblance to, well, bus travel. Yet jet tourism kept growing. In 1950, air travelers flew about 28 billion kilometers. By 2000, that number had grown to three trillion.
In those years, international air travel had roughly doubled every five years. That’s fifty years of exponential growth.
Any technology that grows that fast is going to have some unexpected effects. As it grew, jet travel brought a slow revolution to the border.
The Department of Homeland Security is our youngest department, but its border agencies can trace their heritage to the beginning of the American republic. They had lived through the era of exponentially increasing international travel. They had watched as a rising tide of international travelers slowly overwhelmed their 1950-era security measures.
Border checkpoints and searches, travel visas and printed passports – these things had changed little since the 19th century. Some were even older; written safe conduct passes for travelers go back to 1414 in England, and the oldest existing passport was issued in 1641 by King Charles I. Even the name “passport” reveals its antiquity. Passports were used to pass through the gate ("porte") of a city wall in medieval Europe. By the 1980s, though, the walls were down and the gate was open.
Border controls that depended on a serious inspection of individuals, their passports and their luggage, simply could not keep up. Border officials could not spend much time with each traveler. The lines at the border were getting too long.
By the 1980s, governments had begun to vie with each other to dismantle these border security measures. U.S. Customs abandoned individual inspection of travelers, allowing those with nothing to declare simply to stroll through the Green Lane. The United States also adopted the Visa Waiver Program. The VWP abolished the single most important restraint on international travel, the visa.
Visas are travel permits. Issued by a country's embassy or consulate abroad, they authorize the visa holder to travel to that country. The process of issuing a visa can be quite simple or quite elaborate, but it typically requires at a minimum that the visa applicant go to the embassy of the country he wants to visit to provide whatever information the consular official requires.
As a control mechanism, the visa is highly flexible. To discourage illegal economic migration, countries may grant very few visas in poor countries -- and those only to the well-to-do. They may also deny visas to potential troublemakers, criminals, or terrorists. They may insist that the local government vouch for the visa applicant. They may require that applicants fill out detailed forms, or provide fingerprints, to help in the clearance process.
These control mechanisms worked pretty well in the first half of the 20th century. But a flood of commercial jet travelers turned visas into costly barriers to casual travel. Barriers that soon began to fall.
In 1988, the United States stopped requiring visas for nationals of Japan and the United Kingdom, and these governments did the same for Americans. The United States was certainly not alone. If anything, other countries moved further and faster. In 1985, for example, most members of the European Union began simply abolishing controls at their borders with other member states. In countries like Belgium, border inspectors were deployed only at international airports. Everywhere else, travelers were free to enter and leave the country without a glance from officialdom.
By the end of the 1980s, even the world’s most notorious border barriers had fallen. The fortified Iron Curtain cutting Eastern Europe off from the West was broken -- by governments and by crowds of citizens from East and West.
Soon, the retreat from border control measures became a rout. Thirteen years after admitting two countries to the visa waiver program, we had opened the doors to two dozen. By 2001, half of all the foreign visitors to the US – a million a month or more – were coming without a visa. No American official laid eyes on these travelers or even knew they were coming, right up to the moment they reached the immigration booth at LAX or JFK.
Even when visas were required, they were streamlined to eliminate the hassles, as well as the safeguards. In Saudi Arabia, for example, the U.S. State Department launched the Visa Express program in June 2001. The program allowed applicants to get a visa by submitting a two-page visa application to their Saudi travel agency instead of going to a US consulate to provide visa information.
Commercial jet technology had triumphed. It had made mass international travel possible, empowering millions. And almost without noticing it, these millions of empowered travelers had broken down a system of border security that had existed for decades.
Border officials noticed, of course, but they could not resist. If they insisted on the old controls, tourism and foreign investment would lag behind the rest of the world. As they saw it, they had only one choice: surrender the old control system or let their country stagnate.
So they surrendered.
We all know what happened next.