As I sit here in Heathrow Terminal 4 having just finished eating some sub-par airport food with tiny cutlery, I can't help wondering if we've done more in the last decade to create a perception of being under constant terrorist threat than to come to terms with how much of a threat we truly face.
Airport travel has changed more in the 10 years than in the half century that went before it. Passengers have become inured to being poked, prodded, scanned and stripped (physically and with the nude-a-tron) as a matter of course. Getting past airport security without setting off klaxons or a minor security alert has been elevated to something akin to playing an unbeaten season or pitching a perfect game. If it's not your ill-chosen footwear it's that chicken salad sandwich you forgot was in your carry-on bag that almost necessitated the deployment of a CDC hazmat team.
Not only has this made air travel rather unpleasant, it has also created a pervading sense of paranoia when glancing around at other passengers. Why is that teenager being so slow to take off his metal studded belt? Is that pregnant women going to attack the security guard with her nail file? Passengers have become so downtrodden that most will surrender their shoes, belts and watches whether they're asked to or not. I now make it a point of doing only what is asked, as I don't find shuffling through the metal detector in my socks, holding up my sagging trousers particularly edifying.
This airport paranoia is no more evident than in the stupid little knives and forks that are gradually becoming commonplace in most international airport restaurants. As a would-be terrorist having made it through security, naturally my first thought would be to make for the nearest Frankie and Benny's and go for the razor sharp fork to go on a fork-rampage. Not quite as sexy sounding as a samurai sword, but oh so much more readily available.
Real target-hardening measures such as crash bollards, improved CCTV coverage and better trained security personnel do have an impact in both deterring terrorism and catching would-be attackers in the act. Explosives trace-detection portal machines (think electronic sniffer dog) are probably more likely to catch a terrorist than a full-body backscatter scan as they specifically look for traces of explosive material - rather than displaying a blurry naked image of each passenger. As was very clearly pointed out in Charles C. Mann's recent Vanity Fair article it is not only surprisingly simple to defeat post-9/11 airport security but also unlikely that terrorists will employ the same methods again in future attacks (c.f. shoe-bombs). We're not just bolting the stable door, we've bricked it up and added an electric fence.
There are far more frightening targets that we aren't protecting that could have a similar symbolic effect to airport attacks - e.g. large sporting events, power plants and water treatment facilities - and yet billions of dollars have been ploughed into airport security measures that are still not 100% effective. Because security measures never are. Thwarting terrorism is a 24/7 enterprise and while security measures have to work all the time, a terrorist only needs to get lucky once to perpetrate a successful attack. This is a fact we have to learn to accept and move on.
We long ago bypassed the land of diminishing returns when it comes to airport security and by giving such credence to shady cells of poorly trained militants we are achieving exactly what they want - a constant atmosphere of terror. If you want a concrete example of where this road could lead then look no further than Israel. Yes, Israel does face a very real threat from terrorism, but when you go to a Tel Aviv beach and see young soldiers sunbathing with their M16s lying beside them, I think a point has been reached where the threat of an imminent attack is being premised over people being able to live their lives.
The rub is that if any country showed the leadership and strength of character necessary to downgrade airport security and an attack were to happen, the blame would fall solely on their shoulders. We've now entered some bizarre twilight zone where the only solution is to pile on more security rather than look at whether the measures we already have in place are truly effective or could be streamlined to enhance passenger privacy and dare I say it, satisfaction. Of course there is a trade off between safety and passenger happiness, but the same could be said for buying a Prius over a Ferrari. The safest solution would be for nobody to fly anywhere and if we continue on course that may end up happening when we get to the point of mandatory cavity searches for every summer vacation.
The time and money poured into the increasingly invasive security measures seen at airports should be spent where it really matters - on criminal investigation and police overtime. Terrorists dumb enough to try attacking an airport post-9/11 are most likely going to get caught and dealt with easily - it's the ones who target the places we aren't protecting that keep me up at night.