Personally, I don’t like it any more than most, but I am getting sick and tired of the way it’s become a kind of cause celebre for a certain section of the population whose idea of a major breach of human rights is having their scants scanned or their personage patted.
Having spent 30 years as a correspondent travelling through countries where intrusive security measures are a way of life, perhaps I have become a little inured to the whole thing.
I mean, try having to explain to a group of drunk Congolese airport guards that you’re not a mercenary soldier just because you’re carrying a Swiss Army knife, or talking your way out of an “intimate inquiry” by a leering Middle Eastern security official who pulled on a pair of rubber gloves with way too much haste and relish for anyone’s liking.
Experiences such as these are, of course, out of the ordinary but so, too, are the recent shock-horror headline stories like the man whose urostomy bag was burst during a body search, or the woman cancer patient who, despite explaining to a female security guard that the lump in her blouse was a prosthetic breast, was duly told it would still have to be checked.
Most of these more lurid stories have, of course, come from the United States, where the so-called “pat down” and use of full body scanners said to produce a virtually naked image have outraged some Americans. So much so, in fact, that over the current busy Thanksgiving holiday period, protest groups have called for a National Opt-Out day, refusing to go through these scanners and causing disruptive delays for the Transport Security Administration (TSA) officials at whom their grievance is targeted.
“No naked body scanners, no government-approved groping … buying a plane ticket should not mean that we’re guilty until proven innocent,” proclaimed one of the organisers.
Have you ever heard such nonsense? Listening to this self-indulgent bleating, I really can’t help wondering just who it is that’s getting things out of proportion. I don’t know about you, but I’m more than happy to have whatever package I possess patted down or X-rayed if it means some terrorist is stopped from blowing me and my fellow passengers out of the sky, or hijacking the plane and rerouting it in the direction of the nearest tall building.
In explaining away the motives of the American protesters, one BBC reporter suggested that their behaviour reveals the “conflicting impulses within the American soul”. Apparently, he means that here is a country whose people by and large hold in high esteem any uniformed defender of their land, but who simultaneously harbour a deep-seated suspicion of any attempt by the state to extend their influence at the expense of the individual citizen.
While I accept this observation is probably quite accurate, these days when it comes to aviation security, Americans, like everyone else, just have to accept that we can’t have it both ways.
For decades now, commercial aviation has been threatened by terrorism. Islamic-inspired terrorists, in particular, have long been preoccupied with attacking aircraft. From the first hijackings and bombings in the late 1960s to last month’s attempt against the UPS and FedEx cargo aircraft, the threat has not only remained constant but the technology and tactics deployed by terrorists have evolved in tandem with efforts by security specialists to thwart them.
As one analyst working for the STRATFOR Global Intelligence think-tank recently pointed out, when measures were implemented to protect against the likes of the large-scale 1995 Bojinka airliner plot that involved smuggling modular explosive devices on to planes, terrorists adapted to the 9/11-style hijacking approach. When that tactic was exposed and shoes began to be screened, they quickly switched to devices containing camouflaged liquid explosives. In turn, as security efforts to restrict the quantity of liquids that people could take aboard aircraft were put in place, terrorists moved on to attempt the underwear-bomb attack of last Christmas.
It’s this, the variable and changing nature of the threat, that is precisely why security measures themselves can never remain the same for long. Like most people, I find it’s not the intrusive nature of airport security screening that annoys me, but rather the inconsistency of procedures implemented around the world and, even more bafflingly, from one airport to another within the UK itself.
Sure, ask me to take my belt and shoes off in, say, Glasgow, but why then, an hour later at Heathrow or Manchester, is it suddenly no longer necessary?
“One of the key points in this is to make sure that if a security measure is necessary, it’s universally applied … some airlines or some airports want one thing done, others don’t and it doesn’t make sense to the public,” was how Colonel Richard Kemp, a former member of the national crisis-management committee Cobra, hit the nail on the head last month when calls were made for changes in Britain.
For many passengers, it is obvious, too, that the interpersonal skills of many airport security officials are another area in need of rigorous attention. Intelligence, intuition, awareness of situations, observation and common sense are surely as much the tools needed by staff as scanners, X-ray machines and body searches.
No security safeguards are foolproof. Ever resourceful and adaptive, terrorists will continue to scrutinise measures, identify vulnerabilities and seek to exploit them. Worryingly, some security experts point out that for decades drug couriers have been transporting narcotics hidden inside their bodies, and prisoners frequently hide weapons and even cell phones inside body cavities.
Isn’t it then only a matter of time before terrorists do the same, perhaps smuggling non-metallic explosive devices on to an aircraft, bypassing metal detectors, X-ray inspection and passing through external body searches?
Given such a depressing scenario, who knows what security measures may lie in store for future air travellers. Those who moan about the intrusion of airport searches are, of course, entitled to do so. The chances are, though, they are precisely the same people who would complain even more vociferously if they or someone they knew found themselves on the receiving end of a terrorist outrage resulting from a cowed and over-cautious security apparatus.
Body search or blown apart? I think we all know which would cost us the most inconvenience.