Boxcutters, Garage Door Clickers and a Virus

By Stew Magnuson

iStock photo

It has been two decades since 9/11 and like many people, the anniversary snuck up on me. I suspect many readers are asking themselves: has it really been 20 years?

As a journalist who has been reporting on defense and homeland security technology for the past two decades, there are three things to me that represent the last 20 years — boxcutters, garage door openers and a virus.

These three objects — along with the intangible human will — have helped shape recent U.S. history.

It has been said that a “failure of imagination” led to 9/11 — that no Americans foresaw that airliners could be taken over by a bunch of fanatics using only boxcutters. They didn’t have explosives or guns — only rudimentary knives found in arts and crafts stores that escaped the attention of airport screeners.

Of course, the 9/11 attackers had a bit more than boxcutters. They had a plan. They had some training on how to fly jets. But at the end of the day, the weapon used to take over the airliners was a sharp edge — something that dates back to the days of the cavemen.

And, they had human will. The attackers went down believing their heinous acts were justified.

Every action has a reaction, and what a reaction there was to 9/11.

The “failure of imagination” and boxcutters led lawmakers to imagine all sorts of scenarios where terrorists could attack the homeland and to allocate billions of dollars to protect us against some of these perceived threats.

It led to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security to administer these programs.

In DHS’ early years, I covered many programs Congress mandated to thwart every plot that ever appeared in a Tom Clancy novel or James Bond movie. Many of them were colossal wastes of taxpayer dollars. It took a long time for the government to learn that using big data was more practical than, for example, scanning every one of the 7 million shipping containers entering the United States for an improvised nuclear bomb.

DHS has its critics, but there hasn’t been an attack on the scale of 9/11 for 20 years. But the extremist ideology — and the human will to carry out terrorist attacks — remains.

Another reaction to the hijacking of airplanes with boxcutters was the invasion of Afghanistan, and later Iraq. And that’s where garage door openers entered the scene.

Along with reporting on homeland security technology, I wrote about the scourge of roadside bombs. There were some three dozen identified methods of setting off an improvised explosive device, the asymmetric tactical and strategic weapon insurgents used in Iraq and Afghanistan to attack U.S. forces.

The one that symbolizes the simplicity of the weapon for me was the everyday garage door clicker. Insurgents used them to send electronic signals to set off the bombs from a safe distance — causing horrific bloodshed for the military and civilians.

And like the 9/11 hijackers, there was a lot more to the tactic than the detonation device. They had to have explosives — plenty of those laying around — and training proliferated on the internet to make and deploy bombs.

The Defense Department and its industry partners spent billions to tackle the problem with the creation of special task forces and organizations with the sole goal of defeating IEDs. Jammers quickly defeated garage door clickers, but not the wires hidden in the ground.

Predator drones with high-resolution cameras and hyperspectral imagers sought out the bombs and bombers. Industry rapidly designed and manufactured mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles. Advanced forensics allowed special operators to quickly go after the bombmaking networks. It was a monumental undertaking to defeat what was basically a variation of a Claymore landmine.

Again, behind the clickers was human will. The bombers burying the IEDs believed what they were doing was justified, right up until a drone dispatched a Hellfire missile.

And finally, the virus. It’s not a simple, everyday item, but COVID-19 just about brought the nation to its knees. It’s an unseen enemy outside of a research lab or magazine covers.

Neither DHS nor the mighty U.S. military could stop COVID-19 making its way from China to here. Or its subsequent variants. It has taken some 617,000 lives as of press time, with almost incalculable costs to the nation.

But again, American ingenuity was applied to the problem and a vaccine emerged quicker than anyone expected. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has taken some credit for research that fostered methods that could rapidly create vaccines.

These three items altered history irrevocably. But Americans rose to the occasions. Terrorists will never again be able to take over an airliner with something as simple as boxcutters. Cockpit doors have been hardened and they saw what happened to United Flight 93. There are probably dozens of passengers on any given flight with the human will to pummel them to death if they try. And roadside bombs failed strategically to chase U.S. forces out of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Americans have a great deal of their own human will to counter such threats.

As for COVID-19, what government and industry has achieved is laudable. But sadly, the pandemic has not unified the nation. It has divided it like never before.

What will the ultimate costs be for this microscopic enemy?

Topics: Homeland Security

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