Living with the threat of terrorism – compare and contrast.

Just about every country in the western world is a potential target these days. Fact of life. Just about every citizen has a small, and we’re talking incredibly small, risk of being killed or harmed by hate fuelled religious maniacs. Also a fact of life. But for Eurpoeans old enough to remember any of the 70s and 80s this isn’t entirely new. The Baader-Meinhof group and the Red Brigade and all the other middle class uni educated fucknuts who went around killing people to set them free or whatever, plus the occasional bit of fighting from the Middle East spilling over and posing a risk that Europeans could caught up in the crossfire. Similarly in Britain we had the IRA and the other republican terror groups, and for several Christmases in a row people living in the London area would think of an IRA bomb in terms of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’. For all the causes may have been different and the bombers intended to get away to bomb again another day rather than blow themselves to tiny scraps* but the bottom line is that the threat of terrorism, even of Muslim terrorists, isn’t new. Yet, as I mentioned a few days ago, we’ve gone from being sufficiently blasé about it that we carried on our lives more or less as normal to allowing that tiny, tiny risk to influence nearly every decision or activity. We’ve now reached the stage where, because a man tried to ‘attack the west’ by means of extreme fart lighting, we’re going to be treated even more like cattle whenever we fly anywhere.

I remember the first time I flew anywhere. It was to Italy and I was eight years old and very, very excited. I probably wore my poor parents’ ears half off with non stop questions about what it was like to fly through a cloud, and asking Dad if he could ask if I could see the cockpit. And I did. I was allowed to stand just outside the door for a few minutes to gape in astonishment at all the dials and switches and wonder how the hell anyone could possibly make sense of it all – I was expecting something like a slightly more complex version of the dashboard in the family Ford Cortina. Try asking that now for your eight year old and see where you get. No, you plug them into the in flight entertainment system and order a glass of Pinot before doing the same thing yourself. And now, according to Dick Puddlecote’s comment, because of the man with the flammable crotch if you feel the need to go and release the products of that Pinot too close to landing time you’ll now be told to hold it in. Presumably allowances will be made for people with medical conditions who are on diuretics, though I wouldn’t be surprised if this meant handing you a jubilee clip. You’ll have to tighten it up with your fingernails though, because there’s no way they’ll let you have a screwdriver.

So needless to say I’m pretty over flying. I think I’d have been over it anyway as I grew up – when you think about it one bit of sky looks much like another and from 35,000 feet there needs to be mountains for the land to look terribly interesting. Over water flights are, naturally, duller still and the only thing that gets my attention when flying at night is if we go over a city. Otherwise flying is actually a very boring way of getting from A to B, and doesn’t make up for it by being fast enough. It’s about as extreme an example as there is, but since I’m familiar with it let’s look at flying UK Australia’s eastern states. On the ‘Kangaroo Route’ London to Singapore or Kuala Lumpur takes about twelve hours, give or take. The leg to Sydney or Melbourne is getting on for another eight hours. To that you’ve got to add time at the airport, which has crept up from an hour before departure to three hours (and counting), plus a couple or three hours on the ground at the refuelling spot. Then it takes up to an hour to get off the plane, clear through immigration, find your luggage, clear customs, and finally get into a car driven by an out of work stuntman masquerading as a taxi driver. Coming the other way is just the same except even longer and you have to deal with the Soviet style immigration procedures that go with transiting so much as a square inch of soil anywhere between Canada and Mexico. More than a day of travelling, and at least twenty hours of which are spent cooped up in a 20 foot diameter pipe being told on the one hand that you’re legs will swell up and go purple and you’ll die of Deep Vein Thrombosis if you don’t get up and move around, but on the other that you’ll be treated as a suspected terrorist if you do. This still applies even if you have a broad American accent, the Irn-Bru complexion of the spray-on-tanned, and a waistline that suggests the only way you’re going to explode is from consuming absolutely everything edible on the plane (aka a suet-cide bomber, presumably).

Security screened for possession of wafer thin mints.

In fact because of the perceived risk of terrorism they won’t even let you off a plane that isn’t going anywhere because it’s broken down. Because you might be a terrorist. Yes, I’m serious.

A QANTAS A380 has been grounded in Melbourne, stranding 443 passengers who were stuck on the tarmac for more than four hours.

Flight QF93 was initially delayed one-and-a-half hours because of a fuel gauge fault.

It was taxiing when the problem recurred, forcing take-off to be aborted.

Passengers remained on board while maintenance crews examined the problem. They were not allowed to disembark because of heightened security procedures for US-bound flights that made re-screening passengers impractical.

Oh, do fucking behave. You’ve got to keep people sitting in the bloody plane for four hours? What, there wasn’t one room available in a whole international airport that could hold a plane load, albeit a very large plane, of passengers and crew so they didn’t need to be rechecked? And what the fuck is with the checking and rechecking and rerechecking and rerererechecking anyway? Because of this non-stop paranoia and timidity, not necessarily of Americans but certainly of their lunatic politicians who fear being blamed for one hair of an American head being harmed, and because every other government is too cowed by Washington to disagree or point out flaws – such as having to treat millions of innocent air passengers as fucking suspects all the time – we all have to put up with it. Between the ‘everyone’s a terrorist until we’re satisfied they’re not’ attitude of the security people and the ‘fuck ’em, they’re just Self Loading Freight’ attitude of the airlines flying has turned from tedium into an absolute nightmare. Worse still, when it comes to mid to long haul there’s frequently no practical option but to fly, so they’ve got you by the short and curlies. And we’re told that this is the way it has to be now and that everyone is doing it.

Everyone?

Not quite. The other day Obnoxio had a link to a blog he’d just come across, and that blog, The Melangerie, mentioned a very interesting article about flying and security.

“It is mind boggling for us Israelis to look at what happens in North America, because we went through this 50 years ago,” said Rafi Sela, the president of AR Challenges, a global transportation security consultancy. He has worked with the RCMP, the U.S. Navy Seals and airports around the world.

“Israelis, unlike Canadians and Americans, don’t take s— from anybody. When the security agency in Israel (the ISA) started to tighten security and we had to wait in line for – not for hours – but 30 or 40 minutes, all hell broke loose here. We said, `We’re not going to do this. You’re going to find a way that will take care of security without touching the efficiency of the airport.'”

Waiting 40 minutes at the airport and complaining? The Israelis just became my favourite people de jour. This, apparently, is what happens when you check in at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport.

The first layer of actual security that greets travellers at Ben Gurion is a roadside check. All drivers are stopped and asked two questions: How are you? Where are you coming from?

“Two benign questions. The questions aren’t important. The way people act when they answer them is,” Sela said.

Once you’ve parked your car or gotten off your bus, you pass through the second and third security perimeters.

Armed guards outside the terminal observe passengers as they move toward the doors, again looking for odd behaviour. At Ben Gurion’s half-dozen entrances, another layer of security is watching. At this point, some travellers will be randomly taken aside, and their person and their luggage run through a magnometer.

“This is to see that you don’t have heavy metals on you or something that looks suspicious,” said Sela.

You are now in the terminal. As you approach your airline check-in desk, a trained interviewer takes your passport and ticket. They ask a series of questions: Who packed your luggage? Has it left your side?

“The whole time, they are looking into your eyes – which is very embarrassing. But this is one of the ways they figure out if you are suspicious or not. It takes 20, 25 seconds,” said Sela.

Lines are staggered. People are not allowed to bunch up into inviting targets for a bomber who has gotten this far.

At the check-in desk, your luggage is scanned immediately in a purpose-built area. Sela plays devil’s advocate – what if you have escaped the attention of the first four layers of security, and now try to pass a bag with a bomb in it?

“I once put this question to Jacques Duchesneau (the former head of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority): say there is a bag with Play-Doh in it and two pens stuck in the Play-Doh. That is `Bombs 101′ to a screener. I asked Duchesneau, `What would you do?’ And he said, `Evacuate the terminal.’ And I said, `Oh. My. God.’

“Take (Toronto’s) Pearson (airport). Do you know how many people are in the terminal at all times? Many thousands. Let’s say I’m (doing an evacuation) without panic – which will never happen. But let’s say this is the case. How long will it take? Nobody thought about it. I said, `Two days.'”

A screener at Ben Gurion has a pair of better options.

First, the screening area is surrounded by contoured, blast-proof glass that can contain the detonation of up to 100 kilos of plastic explosive. Only the few dozen people within the screening area need be removed, and only to a point a few metres away.

Second, all the screening areas contain `bomb boxes.’ If a screener spots a suspect bag, he/she is trained to pick it up and place it in the box, which is blast proof. A bomb squad arrives shortly and wheels the box away for further investigation.

“This is a very small, simple example of how we can simply stop a problem that would cripple one of your airports,” Sela said.

Five security layers down: you now finally arrive at the only one which Ben Gurion airport shares with Pearson – the body and hand-luggage check.

“But here it is done completely, absolutely 180 degrees differently than it is done in North America,” Sela said.

“First, it’s fast – there’s almost no line. That’s because they’re not looking for liquids, they’re not looking at your shoes. They’re not looking for everything they look for in North America. They just look at you,” said Sela. “Even today with the heightened security in North America, they will check your items to death. But they will never look at you, at how you behave. They will never look into your eyes … and that’s how you figure out the bad guys from the good guys.”

The goal at Ben Gurion is to move fliers from the parking lot to the airport lounge in 25 minutes tops.

Wait, what? Twenty five minutes? Twenty five?

Why the hell can’t we do that? Why can’t our governments grow some balls, explain that if even if we maintain the current pretence of freedom – genuine freedom having been sacrificed in the name of security – now and again a terrorist fucknuts will slip through anyway… but we can just as secure, far more free and way less inconvenienced if we do things like the Israelis. Obviously there’s less time to spunk away your holiday money on the airport shops, but many people think airports that are more like shopping malls with runways are just another hellish facet of the nightmare that flying has become so this isn’t a downside for many people.

It’s a free market, folks. The only way it’s going to happen is if we all vote with our feet and our wallets. I don’t fly much but next time I need to go interstate I’m going to ring up all the airlines and rather than talk prices I’m going to ask them about a far more precious commodity, namely how much of my time it’s going to cost me. And then, since they’ll all give the same estimates and excuses for me having to sit around a terminal trying to resist the temptation to brain myself against the nearest wall I’ll tell the all the same thing: that’s not acceptable, I’d rather drive. Yes, Melbourne to Sydney or Adelaide by car is still longer than flying and will cost a few bob in petrol, but on the ground I’m not being herded through gates and checkpoints from one glorified cattle pen to another, eventually to sit in the winged tube and look out the windows at nothing much, followed by an abbreviated reverse of the procedure at the other end. On the ground I get scenery to look at, my own choice of whatever food and drink I can buy on route or before I leave, the schedule is up to me and can be changed on a whim, and I get to stop when and where I want. In the air I’m Self Loading Freight/Suspected Terrorist. On the ground I’m free (well, as much as the law says I can be, but that’s a whole other topic). There might not be much option for flying abroad at the moment, though people of less geographically isolated countries than Australia probably can tell the airlines to sit back and watch them drive to another country, but where the choice is there and is practical (it takes a week to drive from one side of Australia to the other so Perth Sydney is probably out) I for one am going to waste the airline’s time and then tell ’em I’m not paying to be treated like that. If they want my money I want to have the Israeli airport experience. Get me on that plane quickly and efficiently enough that I can arrive just 30 minutes before departure time, or fuck off.

And so much for not blogging for a day or two.

* Presumably if you’re, say, a Marxist Irish republican there’s nobody promising 72 pints of Guinness in paradise or anything. Or maybe they’re too bright to become what the some have described as a ‘not-so-smart bomb’.

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Posted on January 5, 2010, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Living with the threat of terrorism – compare and contrast..

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