July 6, 2016
I WAS AFRAID OF THIS. In the aftermath of the recent bloody attacks at the terminals in Brussels and Istanbul, we’re hearing calls for tighter airport security.
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, after Brussels and Istanbul, 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 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. No checkpoint is going to stop a terrorist hellbent on destruction.
Indeed, Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport, the third-busiest in Europe, already had secondary checkpoints in place, at the entrance of the international departure hall. It made no difference.
Another supposedly helpful tactic is to flood the terminal with soldiers or policemen. At U.S. airports nowadays we see an increasing number of police and National Guard troops parading around with automatic weapons. This has always baffled me. What sort of deterrent is this intended to be? I realize that one of the attackers in Istanbul was tackled by a policeman, but do all these guns and uniforms really matter to a suicide bomber armed with explosives?
The constant, anything-goes ramping up of security is precisely the wrong response. 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 rather 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 some people 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.