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The skies are the limit

Earlier this week I flew into London Heathrow from Athens, having been subjected to a relatively modest amount of incovenience, expense and humiliation as a result of the latest anti-terrorist security measures. Had I been travelling in the opposite direction (i.e. London to Athens), the story would have been altogether different and my trifling miseries compounded by several magnitudes. I truly sympathised with the weary, frustrated wannabe-outbound travellers who were camped on the floor of the terminal going nowhere, thanks to numerous cancelled flights, huge delays and a blanket of zealous security measures aimed at stripping them down to their socks.

I wonder if any of those people have been sullied by the experience? I wonder if any of the magic and wonder of modern civilian airline travel has been marred for them? I hope not, but what is certain is that the hidden costs of this latest air-travel crisis, in terms of time, money and lost opportunities, must be huge. Air travel is no longer the preserve of the privileged few; it is a vast mass industry that bestows incalculable economic, social, cultural and even spiritual benefits on us all.

And yet, it is all too easily assailable because no amount of security or scrutiny can obviate the basic fact that a pressurised, inescapable metal tube flying some 30,000 feet up in the sky is, and always will be, critically vulnerable to attack from either without or within, the results of which are simply to horrible to be shrugged off. Tougher security measures can make life harder for the Islamists but the fact remains that the security screeners need to be lucky all the time while the jihadis only need to be lucky once. That is why, over a longer time frame, the odds favour the latter.

Perhaps that is why the tune has changed. Following the London Undergound bombings in July 2005, there was an instant and comprehensive demand for solidarity. ‘One London’ read the official blazen of the Mayor’s office. ‘We will not allow these terrorists to divide us’ proclaimed HMG. From one end of the country to the other, hands were held, memorials were wept through and communities appealed to for calmness and reason. Everyone who was anyone rushed headlong towards the Totem of Tolerance and hugged it hard enough to squeeze out the sap.

In contrast, the airline scares have been just that; scares. Not a single bomb has exploded and (mercifully) not a a soul was taken. Yet the response could not be more different. This time, the message emerging from some official quarters is that it is time for profiling, a measure the mere utterance of which would have been unthinkable a year ago in the wake of 52 dead commuters.

Why the difference now? Perhaps it is just the cumulative weariness of one bloody thing following the next and a government that is rapidly running out of other ideas. Or perhaps it is because there is a dawning collective realisation that it will not take too much more of this to bring the whole wonderful, liberating phenomenon of commercial air travel to a juddering and insensible end. It seems that taboos can be easily dispensed with the moment they are no longer affordable.

Of course, the threat of profiling has precipitated a chorus of disapproval but, significantly, only from the usual and expected circles. I would wager that those exhausted travellers, stranded in blankets on the unforgiving stone floor of Heathrow’s Terminal 2, would noisily and heartily approve.

15 comments to The skies are the limit

  • Richard Thomas

    I have felt sullied by the simple requirement of having to remove my shoes so god knows what these poor people feel like. I should imagine many will never fly again.

    Understand that I am not shy about my feet and have all but abandoned much of the nudity taboo. But being required to remove *any* item of clothing by *anybody* will always be somewhat demeaning.


  • ResidentAlien

    The current security philosophy is completely process oriented. It is driven by the belief that if only we adopt certain controls, check certain specified things and ban other things then we will have “security.” The function of the TSA seems to be to stop nail clippers, cigarette lighters and now liquids getting on planes.

    If profiling only means adopting another set of rigid rules then we will be no better off. There needs to be more human interraction in the checking process. Somebody who is trained to understand body language, equipped with a simple voice modulation lie detector or a infrared sensor (to detect high body temperatures) and has passenger information (recent travel details, passport details, picture taken at check-in, electronic image of the X-Ray of their luggage) at his or her fingertips can simply ask the traveler “where are you traveling today sir?” gauge reaction and either question further or let the traveler pass. Of course, we should still use the metal detectors, explosive sniffers or full body x-ray machines but should get rid of the arbitary rules banning just about anything which might just possibly be made into something dangerous.

    At the moment human suspiscion only really comes into the equation if somebody fails the metal detector.

  • veryretired

    It is clearly time to rethink the entire sequence of events which now constitute flying somewhere and devise more sensible and safer procedures.

    The current system is basically an adaptation of the old railroad or steamship model, in which people come to a central location with all their baggage, board the conveyence, and all travel together to a destination, with or without several stops along the way.

    But, just as cargo transportation has been thoroughly revamped by the development of containers, the specially designed ships and trucks to carry them, and the computer systems to keep track of them, so too must passenger travel be redesigned to achieve higher levels of efficiency and safety.

    Remote check-in locations, containerized passenger compartments that would travel from a hotel to the airframe and be loaded seperately from a cargo container, or even on seperate flights, modular passenger units in various sizes to increase privacy and safety, psychological and chemical analysis and profiling, several styles of company issued, disposable clothing, self service mini-bars instead of carry on or mass served food and beverages.

    Electronics (computers, music players, dvd players and movies) provided for a fee instead of carried on.

    The possibilities are limited only by our own imaginations and determination to reduce this threat.

    It is no surprise that the terrorists are so focused on various types of transportation, especially airplanes, which have people crowded together, and are especially vulnerable to relatively small amounts of explosive. The need is not for a more cumbersome security regime, but a more flexible method of creating safe environments.

    One of the unnoticed variables in our global culture is the enormous amount of cargo that is transported every day in relative safety, with new modalities which have increased efficiency as well as reducing damage and theft. We need the same kind of innovative thinking about moving people as we have used to improve the movement of things.

  • fsdfs

    _too_ horrible

  • Pete

    In 15 days time or so, most (perhaps all) of these suspects are going to get released, as the bugging evidence against them won’t be enough. They’ll join the lucrative Gobby Victims industry (I can see them on a stage with Jenny Tonge now), the media will sneer at the police, and everyone will be back to normal.

    I never get the tube and can’t sleep on planes, but I seem to have reached snapping point much earlier than most.

  • Richard Thomas

    Pete, certainly the impression that we’re getting on this side of the pond (US) is that they were taken with very little in the way of real (useful) evidence. I am surprised to not be seeing more discussion of that on this website.


  • Millie Woods

    Very retired has it exactly right but there is another part of the problem to be resolved and that is Muslim immigration and the Muslims already in the UK.
    The costs of dealing with this element’s propensity for criminality and terror is enormous and society gets nothing in return from the Muslims in their midst.
    I know I repeat in a delenda est Carthago manner that deportation and eye for an eye dealings with Islamic terrorist supporting countries is the only solution to the problem. Mad dogs are destroyed aren’t they? No one tries to ‘reason’ with them or send them to advanced obedience training so why isn’t the safety of the majority population taken into account when dealing with the human equivalent of mad dogs?

  • Kevin B

    I commented at Protein Wisdom that this should properly be sorted out between the Airlines and the Airport Authorities. “Provide us with a timely and secure load of passengers or we stop paying your exorbitant landing fees and/or move to an Airport that will.”

    After last weeks exercise proved that body searches and luggage checks for all would bring air travel to a juddering halt, and various airlines made public, (and I’m sure private), noises about moving, we get the first tentative steps towards a rational screening policy that includes an element of profiling.

    I wonder what will happen when the first case of “discrimination by profiling” hits the European Court of Human Rights, and what the various parties will do when the predictable verdict is returned.

  • jb

    It’s the SOS

    Over and over again.

    Someone (Olberman?) did a side-by-side of the various and sundry “terrorist” potentialities, and found a pretty direct parallel between B & B (Bush and Blair) political problems, and supposed threats.

    Now, of course, neither government has done anything remotely close to an Operation Northwoods, right?


    Hell, the “Islamists” aren’t organized enough to be fascists, despite what Bush and Blair and the rest of the blithering political idiots say.

    The only ones organized enough to get big business to do the bidding of government (fascism at its most basic) are . . .

    Well, hell, the US and the UK.

    Howsabout that?

    But somehow, it feels good to tremble in fear.

    Beck is right–the West capitulated years ago.

    Now it’s just a matter of to whatever degree today.

    Be afraid of every shadow. Free, my ass.

    Protect me, please, Mr. Preesident or Prime Minister!


  • Keith

    When people become exasperated enough, when the cost of these maniacs in our midst becomes great enough, then perhaps there will be a popular uprising against those responsible.
    And it won’t be pretty. Just long, long overdue.
    Hopefully the backlash will sweep away the apologists for multiculturalism and the whole pc industry at the same time.

  • Profiling linked to intelligence such as recent travel patterns etc. is the only way to get away from the shambles at UK airports and maintain a level of reassurance that the masses feel comfortable with.

    Islamic terrorists, do not necessarily belong exclusiely to the “young, male, Middle Eastern” stereotype. We therefore cannot apply a simple blanket policy a advocated by many in the last few days, not because it is inherently racist, but because it is inherently a bloody waste of resources and a source of resentment etc.

  • Profiling linked to intelligence such as recent travel patterns etc. is the only way to get away from the shambles at UK airports and maintain a level of reassurance that the masses feel comfortable with.

    Islamic terrorists, do not necessarily belong exclusiely to the “young, male, Middle Eastern” stereotype. We therefore cannot apply a simple blanket policy a advocated by many in the last few days, not because it is inherently racist, but because it is inherently a bloody waste of resources and a source of resentment etc.

  • Jim West

    “….but because it is inherently a bloody waste of resources….”

    If our existing knowledge of (successful) suicide bombings and suicide bombing plots indicates that of all perpetrators, 91% were from one racial group (group A), and only 9% were from all other racial groups (collectively group B), then, all other things being equal, time invested in screening a person from group A is approx. 9 times more likely to yield your terrorist than the same effort invested in screening a person from group B.

    If all other things aren’t equal, if for example there are only 0.1 people in group A for every person in group B in the general population being screened, then the relative effectiveness of screening group A over group B goes to 10/0.1, i.e. your effort is 100 times more effective when spent screening group A.

    Two words for you: Google, Bayesian.

    There is no more effective way of optimising the use of resource in the current situation than racial/cultural profiling.

  • I flew out from Heathrow Terminal One on Wednesday and found that there were minimal delays. On the issue of security, by all means criticise if you can propose a better system in the short term, but the airports got back to normal very quickly and with the minimum of fuss.

    I didn’t see any people camped on wednesday, and I think frustrated is probably a better word than sullied. Camping out at Heathrow is not some form of pollution.