Airport Security and Brussels

The horrific attacks in Brussels two days ago lead me to contemplate airport security and the difference between the way we do things in Israel and the way things are done elsewhere.

And the difference between the feeling of security and actual security. Big difference.

Airports are sensitive locations. An attack on an airport is an attack on the gateway to the country in which it is located, effecting both the local city and the feeling of freedom – people become afraid to travel, an effective attack shuts down travel and by extension commerce, at least for a while.

I find it shocking that 3 individuals can bring a major European city to its knees and no one points out that this is a major scandal. How easy it is for a few terrorists to put a stop to freedom! (How many terrorists will it take to shut down the entire continent?)

Living in Israel makes you look at security in a different light. Scanning the surroundings, assessing safety vs. threat becomes reflexive. This is not a matter of being in some state of hyper-tension, fear or hysteria, it simply becomes automatic. Going to a new place, the image of how easy/difficult it would be to carry out a terror attack flashes through the mind as a matter of course. An instant later the image is put aside (not forgotten) and the activity at hand is continued with full enjoyment.

Maybe this is why, in general, Israelis scorn measures that are meant to give the feeling of security. We all want to feel secure but it is more important to actually be secure.

On my recent family vacation we went (among other places) to Disney World. It was at Disney’s Magic Kingdom where the cursory bag check at the park entrance seemed most ridiculous to me. Visitors park their car and go with a stream of people to a boat or a monorail station where everyone is transported to the park entrance. There bags are checked and every so often someone is selected for a random screening via a metal detector. Supposedly this ensures visitors safety. No one seems to have realized that the boat docking station or the monorail where hundreds of people gather together at one time would be the simplest place in the world for a suicide bomber to blow him or herself up. Park the car, walk in to the crowd with everyone else and kablooey. Dozens of people would die, many more would be injured, the Disney reputation would be forever damaged and the American economy would take a major hit.

Easy.

There is a big difference between the feeling of safety and actual safety.

The terror attack in the Brussels airport took place in the departures lounge. In most airports in the world security measures begin after passenger check in.

America has invested millions in security technology. After every attempted (or successful) attack the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has added additional security measures. After the shoe-bomber they started forcing everyone to remove their shoes for screening. After a foiled terrorist plot to detonate liquid explosives carried onboard the TSA banned all liquids, gels and aerosols from passenger carry-on luggage. A child cannot carry a bottle of water to drink while waiting at the gate because, possibly, it might be part of an international terrorist conspiracy. If you accidentally forget that you have a bottle of water in your bag and it is discovered in the security screening the screener is not allowed to give it to you to drink (you have to either allow them to throw it away or be escorted to a location before the checkpoint where the screener will then give you your water or cola or yogurt. There you can consume it and later come back through the check point). This is of course reasonable because maybe you will drink the water and explode on the spot. Or maybe you will race to the bathroom with it and at the speed of light create a bomb you can detonate before security catches you…

After the underwear bomber tried to get through security with a bomb strategically placed so it would not be found in a normal screening, the TSA implemented fully body scanners. Every single person needs to go in the capsule, raise their arms like a criminal surrendering to the police and undergo a full body scan that shows every contour of the body. Right to privacy? Sure – unless you want to fly? Then the last, most private things are stripped from you.

There is a race between terrorists and technology. The terrorists strive to circumvent the technology, when they succeed additional technology is added. The investment needed to fund this “security-race” is continually increasing while, at the same time, passenger freedoms are restricted more and more.

European airport security has less technology measures than those of their American counterparts. In addition, that “small” issue of freedom of movement between EU countries complicates the matter. It is known, for example, that many European citizens have gone to Syria for ISIS training. It is also known that many of these have returned to Europe. It is not known where exactly these people are.

Israel’s Ben Gurion airport is different. Interestingly, while being world-renowned for its safety, the Ben Gurion model is not adopted elsewhere. Why?

The two security models are diametrically opposed. While the rest of the world relies on technological solutions for safety, Israel relies first on people and backs them up with technology. While the rest of the world begins security measures after the check-in point, Israel’s airport security begins before people even enter the airport.

Machines that scan bags and people, stripping to have articles of clothing scanned and hysteria about nail files and bottles of water may give the impression of security. Feelings are nice but what about facts?

While Israel has cutting edge technology available to enhance security, the first line of security consists of well trained, experienced, people. It is the ability to recognize someone who is behaving suspiciously that makes all the difference in the world. It then becomes possible to further investigate that specific person, define their threat level and when needed, remove the threat.

It is not necessary to treat everyone like criminals in order to keep the public safe.

It is not technology that makes a person dangerous or assures detection of a danger. The 9/11 hijackers used box-cutters not high powered rifles. The problem was not their weapons but the unprepared flight crew who did not have the knowledge, training or skills to deal with the threat. And the civilians who sat quietly while they were being hijacked… It wasn’t technology that prevented Flight 93 from being used to crash in to another building a wreck more terror on America. It was people. It was Todd Beamer and the men with him who, with no weapons, decided to storm the cockpit and take down the terrorists.

Where there is a will, there is a way and frankly the terrorists have a lot more will than the minimum wage, (often) poorly educated, low interest employees working in airport security around the world.

To oversimplify, while airport security around the world strives to detect “ways” that passengers can be hurt, things that can be used as weapons and bombs, Israeli security detects people who have the will to commit acts of terrorism.

But this means profiling and profiling is racist… right?

Wrong.

Profiling is the extrapolation of information about something, based on known qualities. When applied to security this means, detecting people who may pose a threat, based on known behaviors and tendencies of people who have, in the past, been dangerous to the public. This is called learning from experience.

When someone behaving suspiciously is detected they can then be taken aside, further questioned and inspected. This allows security to focus in-depth on the few who could be a problem, without creating a burden on those who are not.

The profile of a potential terrorist is complicated, some of its elements I am familiar with, more I am not. (Similarly much of Israeli security measures are seen while others remain unseen.) And no, potential terrorists are not necessarily Arabs or Muslims. Most Arabs and Muslims will move freely through Ben Gurion airport, without undergoing in-depth security checks because they are law abiding citizens that pose no threat. Potentially dangerous people do not necessarily have any religious or ethnic ties to Islam. They can also be innocent people who, because of their naiveté became, unbeknownst to them, carriers of bombs set to explode at later time (for example mid-flight).

Elsewhere, so as not to appear “racist,” people are chosen for random additional security checks. In a world terrified of offending it is considered better to subject everyone to offensive, intrusive and cumbersome inspections than to actually identify potential dangers. It is better to focus on giving the feeling of security than being actually secure.

And it is much more fun to point at Israel and accuse us of racism and prejudice than to learn from our experience.

Israel was saddened by the attacks in Brussels. We know the pain caused by terrorism and empathize with the victims. At the same time it was Israel who warned that the security measures in the Brussels airport were inadequate. What a pity their advice was not applied in time…

It is our experts who investigate all the airports where flights depart to Tel Aviv and analyze their security measures. Think about that – Israeli airport security does not begin just at the checkpoint everyone passes driving in to Ben Gurion, it begins at the airports where there are flights destined for Tel Aviv.

That is real security.

 

 

 

 


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