Security Theater Now Playing at Your Airport
by Daniel Pipes
January 6, 2010
As hands are wrung in the aftermath of the near-tragedy on a Northwest Airlines flight approaching Detroit, a conversation from London's Heathrow airport in 1986 comes to mind.
Nizar al-Hindawi and Ann-Marie Murphy.
It consisted of an El Al security agent quizzing one Ann-Marie Doreen Murphy, a 32-year-old recent arrival in London from Sallynoggin, Ireland. While working as a chambermaid at the Hilton Hotel on Park Lane Murphy met Nizar al-Hindawi, a far-leftist Palestinian who impregnated her. After instructing her to "get rid of the thing," he abruptly changed his tune and insisted on immediate marriage in "the Holy Land." He also insisted on their traveling separately.
Murphy, later described by the prosecutor as a "simple, unsophisticated Irish lass and a Catholic," accepted unquestioningly Hindawi's arrangements for her to fly to Israel on El Al on April 17. She also accepted a wheeled suitcase with, unbeknown to her, a false bottom containing nearly 2 kilograms of Semtex, a powerful plastic explosive, and she agreed to be coached by him to answer questions posed by airport security.
Murphy successfully passed through the standard Heathrow security inspection and reached the gate with her bag, where an El Al agent questioned her. As reconstructed by Neil C. Livingstone and David Halevy in Washingtonian magazine, he started by asking whether she had packed her bags herself. She replied in the negative. Then:
"What is the purpose of your trip to Israel?" Recalling Hindawi's instructions, Murphy answered, "For a vacation."
"Are you married, Miss Murphy?" "No."
"Traveling alone?" "Yes."
"Is this your first trip abroad?" "Yes."
"Do you have relatives in Israel?" "No."
"Are you going to meet someone in Israel?" "No.
"Has your vacation been planned for a long time?" "No."
"Where will you stay while you're in Israel?" "The Tel Aviv Hilton."
"How much money do you have with you?" "Fifty pounds." The Hilton at that time costing at least £70 a night, he asked:
"Do you have a credit card?" "Oh, yes," she replied, showing him an ID for cashing checks.
That did it, and the agent sent her bag for additional inspection, where the bombing apparatus was discovered.
Security at Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel.
Had El Al followed the usual Western security procedures, 375 lives would surely have been lost somewhere over Austria. The bombing plot came to light, in other words, through a non-technical intervention, relying on conversation, perception, common sense, and (yes) profiling. The agent focused on the passenger, not the weaponry. Israeli counterterrorism takes passengers' identities into account; accordingly, Arabs endure an especially tough inspection. "In Israel, security comes first," David Harris of the American Jewish Committee explains.
Obvious as this sounds, overconfidence, political correctness, and legal liability render such an approach impossible anywhere else in the West. In the United States, for example, one month after 9/11, the Department of Transportation issued guidelines forbidding its personnel from generalizing "about the propensity of members of any racial, ethnic, religious, or national origin group to engage in unlawful activity." (Wear a hijab, I semi-jokingly advise women wanting to avoid secondary screening at airport security.)
Worse yet, consider the panicky Mickey-Mouse, and embarrassing steps the U.S. Transportation Security Administration implemented hours after the Detroit bombing attempt: no crew announcements "concerning flight path or position over cities or landmarks," and disabling all passenger communications services. During a flight's final hour, passengers may not stand up, access carry-on baggage, nor "have any blankets, pillows, or personal belongings on the lap."
Some crews went yet further, keeping cabin lights on throughout the night while turning off the in-flight entertainment, prohibiting all electronic devices, and, during the final hour, requiring passengers to keep hands visible and neither eat nor drink. Things got so bad, the Associated Press reports, "A demand by one attendant that no one could read anything … elicited gasps of disbelief and howls of laughter."
Widely criticized for these Clouseau-like measures, TSA eventually decided to add "enhanced screening" for travelers passing through or originating from fourteen "countries of interest" – as though one's choice of departure airport indicates a propensity for suicide bombing.
The TSA engages in "security theater" – bumbling pretend-steps that treat all passengers equally rather than risk offending anyone by focusing, say, on religion. The alternative approach is Israelification, defined by Toronto's Star newspaper as "a system that protects life and limb without annoying you to death."
Which do we want – theatrics or safety?
Mr. Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum and Taube fellow at the Hoover Institution, has super-elite status at two airlines.
Jan. 6, 2010 update: I lacked space in the column to play out this ultimate scenario: What if a very large group of hijackers gets on a plane, enough of them so that with muscle alone – no knives, guns, or bombs – they overpower the passengers and crew? What if they threaten the pilots to strangle one person after another until the plane comes under their control? No amount of technology can prevent such a scenario; only scrutiny of who is getting aboard can do so.
And while there has been no such large group, "Those Fourteen Syrians on Northwest Airlines Flight #327" represented a possible step in that direction
Bring Israeli security to our airports
Peter Worthington - Jan 05, 2010
The Toronto Sun
With air travel a mess after the Christmas Day underwear-bomber incident, it's time to rethink airport security.
Instead of the present system of patting down everyone, removing shoes (next, will passengers have to remove underwear?), one carry-on bag, no toilet visits in the last hour of flight, no blankets in the last hour, no using a laptop computer, and three-hour lineups for airport security, why not emulate Israeli airport security?
Israel is the world's most threatened country.It has more direct experience with terrorism than any country.
Yet the last time an Israeli airliner was attacked was 1972, when 24 people were killed by Japanese Red Army terrorists. Since then, there has not been a fatal incident.
How do the Israelis do it -- and why can't we learn from them?
The "layers" of Israeli security at Ben Gurion airport (some 11 million passengers a year -- small by U.S. standards) are more intense than in Canada or the U.S. They include uniformed and plain clothes security personnel checking for nervous or odd-behaving individuals.
To Israelis, individuals are more important than baggage. We check baggage more than we do people -- ever fearful of being accused of "racial profiling."
The Israeli Supreme Court must deal with civil rights groups that argue security measures violate Israeli law by singling out Arabs and Muslims for tougher scrutiny. Terror experts point out Israel's security precautions are effective precisely because they factor in ethnicity, which our security system does not.
Israel's Association of Civil Rights accepts screening is necessary, but wants it done equally on all passengers. Terror expert Ariel Merari has been quoted saying "It's foolishness not to use profiles when you know most terrorists come from certain ethnic groups and certain age groups. A bomber on a plane is likely to be a Muslim and young, not an elderly Holocaust survivor."
Can anyone disagree saving lives justifies inconveniencing certain ethnic groups? The U.S. has concentrated on devising technology to detect weapons, and avoided profiling people likely to use these weapons. This is an ass-backwards approach that eventually will have to change. It's people who are dangerous, not weapons. Over the years, the Israelis have absorbed the reality the person is more important than his/her luggage. In North America we don't have the expertise of the Israelis who are ever on the alert and chatting with "passengers of interest."
Anyone flying in our country can hardly be reassured by security measures.
Our planes don't have the armoured luggage compartments, reinforced cockpits, or armed sky marshals Israeli airliners boast. Nor can frequent flyers be assured a fellow passenger isn't another Muslim radical like shoe bomber Richard Reid, or Umar Abdulmutallab, the would-be underwear bomber.
While racial profiling is illegal, "reasonable suspicion" (which cuts across ethnic differences) is acceptable in law, enabling trained security officers to question passengers. After all, the 1972 terrorists who attacked Ben Gurion airport were Japanese, not Arabs.
"Profiling" should analyze behaviour, as well as ethnicity.
Israel won't reveal some of its security measures. Arabs and Jews are treated differently when boarding Israeli planes, and low risk passengers may get cursory checks. But all hand baggage goes through a pressure chamber aimed at detonating any explosive device.
We could learn a lot from the Israelis -- if we dared to.