I was listening to a segment on NPR last week, a discussion and call-in on the use of body scanners at airport, along with the increased security we can now expect following the recent attempt to detonate an explosive device on a Northwest Airlines aircraft landing in Detroit. Now, no one likes a line at the airport, and with the news that body scanners were to be used as part of the security process for transatlantic flights, I thought “Uh-oh ...” and put in a call to the orthopedic surgeon who inserted a couple of steel rods into my arm with various screws and do-dads from the medical hardware store. It was a “Can I have a copy of my x-rays?” call, just so I have them to hand when I travel. It might help prove that I had the metal inserted before 9-11. It’s just what you have to do to smooth the passage through the mire of security.
Anyway, it rather amazed me just how many people called NPR to complain about the scanners, the security, profiling and what have you; mainly in connection with civil liberties. I can see the point, however, I am of the mindset that death is a pretty major slight against my civil liberty, so – much as I hate queuing – I will go into that Zen space and as far as the whole security thing is concerned, I’ll “just do it.”
During the show, and between two calls of complaint, an Indian woman called in. She had clearly lived in the USA for some years, and said that she and her husband both traveled extensively on business. She explained that they are pulled out for extra security examination 95% of the time when traveling, but she added, “That’s OK with us; we know our features are similar to those of the kind of people who are blowing up ‘planes, so we understand, and we’re happy to put up with it – we want to stay alive too.” That’s my approach, and you might be surprised how many times I am pulled out, though it has more to do with the fact that I’m British, I think, and that, especially during a book tour the flights are all one-way rather than round-trip. Frankly, enhanced security is a mark of the times we live in and it’s the name of the game.
The one aspect of all this that still surprises me – and I mean it REALLY surprises me – is the fact that people in the USA, for the most part, still don’t seem to be taking responsibility for their own security – inasmuch as one can. A terrorist can cause terrible damage without going near the security line, and without even purchasing a ticket. Let me give you an example. I was at an airport, and because I had some time to kill before going through security, I went into a cafe that had lots of seating, some interesting pastries on sale, and you could get a non-dairy latte. In this part of the airport, anyone could walk in and have a coffee, or go shopping. While wrangling my purchases, I noticed two carry-on bags left by the wall with no person close by to ask, “Are these yours?” Now, remember – and you’ve heard me say this before, so sorry for the repetition – I worked in London for years while the IRA were bombing right, left and center, and you didn’t ignore that sort of thing. No idiot leaves a case around, and no idiot ignores it when they see it. So, in this instance, I reported the abandoned cases to the woman on the checkout and said, “I think you should call security.” She looked at me as if I had just grown three heads, and said, “Oh, come ON!” People behind me rolled their eyes, and I realized that I was the only one who saw the potential danger in this abandonment of personal effects. So I put my intended purchases down and walked out, though not before I said, “I may look stupid to you, but if those cases hold anything more dangerous than dirty laundry, then this decision could save my life.” I know, a bit sarcastic, but I was shocked.
I remember talking to my friend, Tim, about what happened – he was a fairly senior officer in the British army at the time, and had just returned home after being part of Central Command in Qatar at the outset of the Iraq war – and he pointed out that it was the fact that, in Britain, we were under threat all the time during the 70’s & 80’s, and that barely a week went by without a bomb going off somewhere that kept us on our toes regarding our surroundings. The eyes in the back of your head were always open. But for us here in the USA, even though we’ve been subject to a terrible terrorist attack, during the spaces in between events we have time to become complacent. We know about the failings of our security organizations, but it might also serve us to know that each day numerous serious terrorist threats are thwarted, and thousands are saved from potential disaster. And though, to be honest, we can’t look up everyone’s trouser legs as they line up for the flight, we can look around us, and we can be vigilant, wherever we are. And we can be unafraid of the embarrassment that comes when we tell a security guard about a kid’s backpack left by the water fountain, especially when the kid comes running to claim the offending backpack just the sniffer dogs are about to get into the candy. That’s a happy ending.
Some years ago, a man boarding a flight was about to step across that rubber bit that marks the end of the ramp and the threshold of the ‘plane, when he happened to glance at the fuselage and saw a piece of metal sticking out. Instead of thinking to himself, “Oh, it’s been checked, they must know what they’re doing. That thing’s probably meant to be like that,” he alerted the flight attendant, who spoke to the engineer, who took a gander at the fuselage and grounded the ‘plane. I can’t remember the technicalities of the problem, but that man saved the lives of about 150 people, because it was a pretty serious bit of metal, and the fact that it was hanging off would have led to the ‘plane crashing on take-off.
With all that said, we know these are very serious times. We don’t need a government to tell us about orange security levels or whatever the latest jargon is, to signal that we need to be vigilant. Be observant, be patient, and let’s do our best to deal with whatever security checks are brought in. They may be knee-jerk reactions, and some of these efforts, ideas and new-fangled machines might not work, or be intrusive, but it’s a different world and we all have to learn to do things differently, and take them in our stride. It doesn’t mean you have to walk around in a heightened state of “What’s going to happen next?” Appropriate vigilance becomes transparent to you after a while, just something you do while going about your business. Which is better than not thinking at all.
Many years ago, after I had completed the training prior to my first flight as an airline stewardess (none of this “flight attendant” lark in those days), we – the girls on my course – all received a note from the airline’s Chief Safety Officer. He was a real stickler for the rules, a demon with carte blanche to turn up any time at any airport in any country to test all flight crew on their knowledge of the ‘plane and emergency procedures. One mistake, and you were off, grounded. For him there was nothing, absolutely nothing more important than the safety of the aircraft and everyone on board. He signed off that note with the message, “To every single one of you - always, always, Happy Landings.”
I can’t say better than that.