How much airport security is too much?

This piece appeared in The Hill Times on August 20, 2018

Is there any less desirable way to travel these days than by air?  Long lineups everywhere, intrusive searches, the delicate dance of holding up your pants while shuffling (since you have to remove your belt before  you pass through the scanner), trying to figure out what 100 ml of liquid is, etc., etc., etc.  The glory days of airline flights these are not.  To make matters worse, the drudgery does not end once you get to your destination.  The BBC reported today that those who arrive at Heathrow are waiting as long as two and a half hours at passport control.  Yikes!

Why has a formerly pleasant way to get from A to B become so tortuous?  In a word: terrorism.  Whether we are talking about the downing of Air India flight 182 in 1985 by Canadian Sikh extremists, or 9/11, or the liquids plot, or the Shoebomber, or the Underwear bomber or….it is obvious that aircraft remain top priorities for terrorists.  The reasons for this are not complicated: a successful attack kills many people all at once, the act gets massive media coverage and the industry, and by extension the economy, takes a hit.  Terrorists clearly know this.

Even if we acknowledge that airplanes remain viable and lucrative targets, are we getting security at airports right?  Are we striking a balance between threat level and disruption to people’s travel plans? Well, if you are Marcus Gee of the Globe and Mail, the answer is clearly no.  He wrote last weekend that what we are forced to endure at security checkpoints amounts to “wasted time, annoyance and gigantic cost”, adding that “We lavish far too much money and attention on preventing dramatic rare events, far too little on fighting everyday blights. The airport security lineup may the most visible example of this unfortunate tendency.”

Mr. Gee is generous with his criticism (why, he asks, are a 70-year old couple subject to this didiculous procedure) but short on solutions.  He rightly cites statistics that airline attacks are rare and acknowledges that some measures (securing the cockpit for example) make sense.  Overall, however, he calls into question what is done, how it is done, to whom it is done and what all this costs the taxpayer/traveler.  Good questions, but…

The simple fact is that even if there has yet to be a single fatality by a hijacker since 9/11 (even though several planes were brought down via bombs placed in the cargo hold), that has not stopped attempts such as those cited above.  As already noted, terrorists would like nothing more than to get one of their own onto a plane and bring it down.  I am fairly certain that security intelligence agencies such as the one I worked for (CSIS) come across information on a constant basis related to plots or ideas for plots.  Each one has to be investigated and although many are probably no more than aspirational in nature I am fairly certain that others are foiled, even if we never hear about them.

As for the poor 70-year old man and woman, they are the victims of this new reality.  If CATSA and their like were to focus solely on ‘brown people’ or men with beards for secondary inspection can you imagine the outcry?  Can you spell ‘racial profiling’?  Besides, there is no profile for terrorists anyway, regardless of what the ‘experts’ tell you.

Imagine a contrary scenario.  What if, after constant, shrill public protest, an airport authority decided to stop executing a particular type of security screening and an attack took place that could have been prevented had that screening been applied?  What would people say in that case?  “It’s ok, at least the victims did not have to go through an onerous search before they died”. I think not.

So no, Mr. Gee, we are not going to get less security. We may even get more, as hard as that may be to believe.  Terrorism and airliners go together like Canadians and hockey.   We had better get used to that.  Yes, we can always carry out security screening better and more efficiently. But we cannot stop doing it.

Phil Gurski is a former strategic analyst with CSIS, an author and the Director of Intelligence and Security at the SecDev Group.


By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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