Here we go again: another summer of airport fun. This year it’s been announced that due to a ‘heightened’ security threat, any Brit attempting a holiday abroad will be subject to an even grimmer ordeal than usual: body searching, shoe removing, laptop searching and endless grinding queueing. Expect it to take twice as long to get through security, an official from the Department of Transport said.
Superficially there are some excellent reasons for all the extra precautions and checks. ‘New intelligence’ from America’s security agencies suggests al-Qa’eda has developed clever explosives that can be soaked into clothing or concealed in human ‘body cavities’, and plastic explosives that masquerade as briefcases and iPads.
But though the threat is genuine, I wonder how effective any of these tedious security checks will actually be; or if anyone in the know really expects them to help save us from attack.
The real enemy of terrorism is not endless and undiscriminating checking, but intelligence, gathered on the ground. A look at past plots thwarted tells you all you need to know. Consider the two cargo bombs sent from Yemen in 2010. One of those packages was examined at East Midlands Airport using specialist officers, sniffer dogs, explosives detectors and multiple X-rays. None of them detected the bomb — but because security services had reliable intelligence that a bomb was being placed on board, they insisted on removing packages and searching them thoroughly, and so the bombs were found.
Even if checking every passenger exhaustively was the right way to thwart terror, why would any serious government issue a press release about it, informing the terrorists that you were on their case and keeping them up to speed on the things you’re looking for? They didn’t do that with Bletchley Park and the Enigma codes. Leaving aside the possibility that our leaders are just plain dim, we must assume their statements are a clever decoy. In that case, everything that we must endure at Stansted and Heathrow is pure ‘security theatre’. This would not be unusual. Much of what passes for ‘security’ and its kissing cousin ‘safety’ is little more than an elaborate show.
You can tell when a country is serious about security. In March 2012 I was standing in the security queue at Ben Gurion Airport, in Israel. I was singled out for some scrutiny. ‘Who are you travelling with?’ the polite official asked. I pointed to my two companions.
My bag was scanned. ‘So, what was your time?’ An odd question, perhaps, but pertinent, considering I had just run the Tel Aviv marathon. ‘Four-twenty. How did you know I ran the marathon?’
‘We can see your medal in the bag,’ the guard said, smiling, swivelling the screen so I could clearly see the big metal disc on the X-ray. ‘Is that a laptop?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Would you like me to take it out and turn it on?’
‘No. That won’t be necessary, Mr Hanlon. Go straight to the gate. Have a nice flight.’ They weren’t interested in my toothpaste, either.
Does this prove anything? No. But I found it interesting that Israel, which endures daily missile barrages from unfriendly neighbours, manages to combine humour and an atmosphere of reassurance and intelligence at its airport, when what we meet here is unblinking, bovine stupidity and rudeness.
Of course the Israelis don’t catch terrorists at check-in. No one does. The American TSA has not detected a single bomb at an American airport since 9/11 (an atrocity, which everyone is at pains not to point out, was accomplished with no bombs at all. None of the visible security measures put in place since 9/11 would have stopped 9/11).
Clever spooks — and Israel’s spooks are very, very clever — catch terrorists long before they reach the airport. If there is a credible threat, we can take it for granted that the front line is not being manned by security officers on £8 an hour at Stansted.
The problem is that the other stuff — the theatre — continues to grow, completely divorced from reality and evidence. Is it useful? Who cares? It’s expedient to announce it, whatever the cost in time and hassle to passengers. Once in place, any security procedure becomes politically difficult to dismantle.
It’s not just at airports that we see this. In the early 1990s a ‘ring of steel’ was erected around the City of London after two IRA truck bombs. It consisted of a series of chicanes at every entry and egress point in the Square mile. Can’t be too careful.
Maybe not, when you have the most successful private army in recent history running around. But the Provisionals have been on ceasefire since 1997. And with weary inevitability, the artery-clogging chicanes and cameras are very much present, if largely unmanned these days. Why?
It turns out there never was a ‘ring of steel’. The whole thing, you see, was a misunderstanding; history has been rewritten. The chicanes and roadblocks were there not to deter terrorists but to — wait for it — create an ‘environmental zone’.
This is cobblers, but it shows why the ring cannot be broken, the gates cannot be unlocked. The fact is, it is never in a politician’s interest to argue for a relaxation of safety and security rules. No one will lose their job for being over-cautious, whereas the penalty for laxity is severe, even if the menace changes or disappears.
Saying the threat has passed is now politically impossible. Ministers knew that the rabies threat from continental Europe was negligible for years before the quarantine laws were finally changed in 2000. No one wanted to be the politician who ‘risked rabies coming to Britain’.
Locked gates annoy, but they do little harm at the ballot box. For example, there is little true security justification to screen passengers on Eurostar trains for knives (you can’t hijack an electric train — and if the Channel Tunnel is a unique target, why are drivers not similarly screened at the Shuttle terminals at Folkestone and Calais?), but who will risk his career pointing this out?
And cost and hassle, time and delay are not the only things at stake here; the real problem with theatre is that it lulls us into a false sense of security. Pointless security measures wave through dangers, as almost happened with the cargo bomb at East Midlands Airport, where the all-clear from all those screening measures led police to declare that the airport should be re-opened. What you really need to know when flying is how to get off a burning plane, but how many of us zone out during the endless safety briefing, packed with unnecessary guff about laptops, mobile phones and ‘personal belongings’?
We have to trust the security forces not to be stupid, I guess, but sometimes you do wonder. During the Olympics in 2012, a gunboat was moored on the Thames and comedy missile launchers erected on East End tower blocks. This was, we were told, to deter a ‘credible’ terror threat.
Few asked what exactly a gunboat was supposed to do against an attack on the Olympic Stadium — start shelling Stratford? Were missiles really supposed to shoot down an airliner streaking across the biggest city in western Europe? And after a threat to bring down transatlantic airliners was identified in early 2003, one response was armoured vehicles at Heathrow. How tanks were supposed to deal with hijacked planes was not explained.
Occasionally you get a politician who sees through the cult. William Whitelaw, we were told, used to meet with senior spooks imploring him, as Home Secretary, to beef up security, to consider the introduction of ID cards, more phone tapping and the like. ‘Nice try, old chaps,’ he would say, pouring the agents another glass of whisky before sending them on their way. How we need a Willie now.
In the Interest of Safety: The Absurd Rules That Blight our Lives and How We Can Change Them, by Tracey Brown and Michael Hanlon, is published by Sphere.