I WAS AFRAID OF THIS. The minute I learned of the double bombing at the Brussels airport check-in lobby earlier today, I knew how the conversation would go. Sure enough, even before the morning was out, we were hearing calls for tighter security in airports.
First, a little history. Although airplanes themselves are historically the choicest target, attacks inside terminals are nothing new. For instance:
In 1972, the Japanese Red Army murdered 26 people in the arrivals lounge at Israel’s Lod Airport (today’s Ben Gurion International).
In 1985, the Abu Nidal group killed 20 in a pair of coordinated ticket counter assaults at Vienna and Rome.
In 2002, a gunman shot three people near the El Al airlines ticket counter at LAX.
And most recently, in January, 2011, a suicide bomber at Moscow’s busy Domodedovo airport killed 35 people.
“Aviation security experts have been warning” read an Associated Press story after the Moscow attack, “that the crowds at many airports present tempting targets to suicide bombers. Arrivals halls are usually open to anyone.”
Now, in the wake of Brussels, we’re hearing this again. The implication is that our airports aren’t yet secure enough, and that only more barricades, checkpoints, cameras, and armed guards will make them so. There’s talk from supposed security experts asking if perhaps terminals need to be closed off to everybody except ticketed passengers and employees, with security checkpoints moved literally onto the sidewalk.
This is something I worried about years ago, when I was a columnist for Salon. Just wait, I wrote, until the next big attack takes place at the check-in counter or at baggage claim. They’ll be turning our airports into fortresses.
As, if by moving the fences, they can’t get us. The only thing moving security curbside would actually do, of course, is shift the perimeter — and the busy choke point of passengers — to a new location. This means nothing to an attacker, whose so-called “soft target” has simply been relocated from one spot to another, no less convenient one. But it would mean immense amounts of hassle for everybody else. Indeed, no amount of airport security is going to stop a suicide bomber hellbent on destruction. Soldiers or policemen parading through the terminal with guns are no deterrent to a terrorist armed with explosives. If anything, they make an attractive target.
Thus, this is precisely the wrong line of thinking. It’s reactionary in the purest sense, and it plays directly into the terrorist’s strategy — a strategy that encourages a response that is based on fear instead of reason, and that is ultimately self-defeating.
The reality is, we can never make our airports, or any other crowded places, impervious to attack. And while maybe you wouldn’t mind living in a society in which every terminal, shopping mall, sports venue and subway station has been militarized and strung with surveillance equipment, count me among those who would.