The Puppetmasters New Clothes

In the Science Fiction novel “The Puppet Masters” by Robert A. Heinlein, alien creatures with the ability to connect to humans nervous systems invade the Earth. This novel was made into a terrible, horrible movie so if you have seen the movie but not read the book, please go read the book. And burn any copies of the movie you can get to.

But back to the book. It’s a pretty typical “alien possession” novel by current standards, but it was actually a significant publication in 1951. The aliens themselves are relatively small things with limited mobility (they are dubbed slugs), but can attach themselves to a victims neck and hang down the back. The “slug” can then control the human and tap into their memories, while remaining hidden under the clothing. As the novel progresses, the protagonists (Sam and Mary, who both work for a secret intelligence agency of the US) withdraw to the mountains. After being attacked by an alien slug, they return to the city to discover a law has been passed requiring full nudity.

Correct, the only way to tell if a human was possessed was to require full nudity. Heinlein established that even a naked woman carrying a purse was suspect because she kept her hand in her purse which allowed her to remain connected to the slug. Now, part of the reason Heinlein wrote this solution into his novel is because he was a big fan of nakedness (hardly any of his novels don’t mention it). But also because it’s the obvious, simple solution to the question “How do I know if you are really you?”. The slugs were too big to not be visible and obvious when attached to a victim.

Now, the $1.69 question: Is this a reactive security measure, or a proactive one?

Thanks to Richard Reid, we now have to take our shoes off at many airports. And most likely, we’ll have much more invasive body scans to look for hidden explosives (even though there’s no evidence such a scan would have caught Nigerian Abdulmutallab’s hidden explosives). These are reactive security measures. Why? Because even looking at a person stark naked, you cannot tell if he or she is a terrorist. “The Puppet Masters” has a specific threat that can be visually identified and is known to be hostile to humanity. So the nudity solution is actually rational, if socially awkward. No such test exists for humans that intend harm to other humans.

This does not stop the TSA and law enforcement to follow profiling methodologies, unfortunately. Many innocent citizens are taken aside because of their religious beliefs, skin color or “atitude”. Timothy McVeighs’, Richard Reids’ and Umar Farouk Abdumutallab’s lesson have not stuck: Terrorism is an action, not a kind of person, a belief system or a clothing style. Most of the security measures taken in airports and on airplanes since 9/11/2001 have been reactive, “security theatre” then actually proactively useful.

So what proactive security measures should be taken in the wake of the failed Christmas Bombing? Move security screening back to boarding gates. Improve the intelligence gathering and sharing community. Train more air marshals and put them on more flights. And most importantly, stop wasting resources on reactive measures.


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