I have stood in a line for well over an hour for the security check at a very busy airport on the US East Coast. A line of hundreds upon hundreds of people that stretched the width of a warehouse-sized hall, that doubled and tripled and quadrupled back on itself — people crowded in together, shuffling to left and to right as they made their painstaking way to the bag-check machines. A line, I was told, that was entirely unremarkable in its length and in the wait it involved. A line, most relevantly, that was accessible to anyone who entered the terminal.
I have waited in lines in the departures halls at airports all over Europe to check in luggage. Waited for ages among crowds of passengers and overflowing luggage trolleys at counters, again, freely accessible to anyone who walks into the airport.
I have stood with crowds of impatient passengers waiting at the baggage reclaim conveyor belts of airports worldwide. In some airports, the area is off-limits to the wider public. In some, armed police and security staff are on hand. At others, the arrivals halls and baggage reclaim areas are open to the street outside.
I have endured the rigors of ostensibly extra-stringent security for various European airlines’ flights to Tel Aviv, had the soles of my shoes double-scanned, watched security staffers agonize over whether a small can of deodorant is going to be allowed on board, seen my young daughter being taken off toward a side room for some unspecified further examination with my outraged wife in hot pursuit.
At Newark airport a few weeks ago, I waited behind a family whose pigtailed toddler daughter was being patted down repeatedly and who had collapsed into baffled tears because something on her person kept setting off the metal detector.
At another North American airport, I waited in a line that simply didn’t move because the staffer operating the bag-check machine couldn’t get herself comfortable in her chair, kept sliding off it, kept returning the same red bag through her machine for recheck after recheck because she’d been preoccupied with her chair each time it went through, and then, aware of the mounting rumble from the waiting passengers, cleared a long line of bags with only the most cursory of examinations in order to get the line moving again.
I’ve flown home from one Mediterranean country in protracted semi-panic because several of the large young men sitting in the rows around me on the flight had set off the metal detectors in security and been waved blithely through.
You’ve doubtless had similar experiences. Or worse.
On Tuesday night, dozens of people were slaughtered by terrorists at Europe’s third busiest airport, in Istanbul. The specifics of the carnage are still emerging, but the killers apparently made their way into Ataturk Airport’s international terminal and used the guns and explosives they were carrying to devastating effect in the parking area, in the arrivals hall, close to a security checkpoint. Security personnel were on hand, and their actions may have prevented further loss of life.
Turkish officials have been quoted saying that the airport has security checks at the entrance to its terminals. The prime minister, Binali Yildirim, says the killers arrived by taxi and, according to the Associated Press, “he ruled out any security failings.”
With all due respect to Mr. Yildirim, and with a great deal of empathy for the victims, that’s just not good enough. It’s barely three months since another terrorist outrage at Brussels airport, perpetrated by killers who strolled through the departures hall with explosives in their suitcases before getting down to their murderous business.
Israel’s airport security is not perfect. We, too, know what it is like to have people massacred at our airport. But the Israeli authorities have long since recognized that security procedures at the airport, however stringent, can only be partially effective if there’s a great gaping hole of vulnerability before travelers get anywhere near the terminal building. And therefore, at Ben Gurion Airport, all vehicles entering the wider airport area are subject to a first check. It may appear cursory; indeed, it is cursory. But simply asking drivers to lower their windows and lobbing a question or two at them affords the security personnel a first opportunity to register anything suspicious. There’s a second, again relatively cursory check, on everybody entering the terminal — another opportunity to pick up on something untoward. And then there’s the vexing issue of passenger profiling — a sensitive matter; an ordeal for some passengers. But a process that enables Israeli security to focus its attention on potentially more problematic travelers and thus to reduce the risk to all travelers.
Diverse factors are at work in Israeli passenger profiling techniques. Thirty years ago, at Heathrow Airport, El Al security found a bomb in the baggage of a young Irish woman traveling to Tel Aviv; it had been hidden in the false bottom of her bag by her Jordanian boyfriend. No amount of questioning would have prompted Anne-Marie Murphy to disclose the bomb’s existence, because Nezar Hindawi hadn’t told her it was there. She was carrying his child and he was sending her, his unborn baby and the rest of the passengers to their deaths. But she merited particularly close inspection because she was traveling alone, had never previously been to Israel, and had purchased the ticket a short time before the flight.
The current accelerating pace of international terrorism requires more than the now-standard, routine, unthinking procedures for securing airports and other places where people gather in large numbers. The attacks in Paris last November underline, for instance, how effective even rudimentary security at soccer stadiums can be in deterring terrorists, and how catastrophic can be the absence of such security at concert halls. The bombers failed to get into the Stade de France, where guards had been deployed more to prevent hooliganism than murder. The terrorists killed some 90 people at the Bataclan Theater, where there were no security personnel at the doors.
Complacently declaring, hours after a massacre at your airport, that there were no security failures — well, that’s just an invitation to the next group of killers. Unconscionably, it’s an invitation that’s also open at most airports around the world.