Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Security and Common Sense

Yesterday's security breach and resulting chaos at Newark Liberty Airport was an indication how ill-prepared we are to cope with something out-of-the-norm. I have my doubts that the man walking in through the exit-only passageway had anything evil in his mind. Sometimes we do such things without thinking or perhaps the person in question looked at the long line and decided that waiting in it was stupid, especially if he didn't have carry-on luggage. Emptying the entire terminal and having everyone re-screened made travelers' lives hell and it could have been avoided with simple solutions.

First of all, why don't we have turnstiles at airports, just like we do at public transit stations, preventing two-way traffic? Granted, the kind used at subways makes it easy to jump over if one is young and has long legs, but there are numerous other types that would prevent such an action. It could be a row of rotating one-way doors with enough space to push along one's carry-one luggage. Next to it would be a guarded gate for people in wheelchairs or babies in strollers. Secondly, once passengers go through their security checks, why can't their hand be stamped with a mark visible with UV-light? We already use this method in paid events where people have to leave for whatever reason and be readmitted. The stamp would show the date, time and area of entrance and could be made of an ink that disappears in 8-12 hours. The personnel checking your boarding pass and identification at the gate could quickly verify the existence of such a marker. Don't tell me this wouldn't have simplified matters at Newark's airport! A similar stamp could also be attached to carry-on luggage.

I have an issue with the body scanners. Personally I don't care if some screener sees my body naked. Finns are comfortable with nudity due to their sauna culture. At issue are passengers who have bags attached to their body as a result of medical procedures, such as an ostomy pouch, also known as a colostomy bag. What about an incontinent person wearing an adult diaper? I can see such a person dreading a scan and the follow-up questions, in front of fellow passengers. Would a religious woman who normally covers much of her body be comfortable with someone seeing her naked? If we are unable to prevent drugs, cell phones and even guns from entering "secure" prisons, what makes us think that we can do a better job screening millions at airports using present methods?

A dog's sense of smell is a thousand times more sensitive than a human's. They could easily sense the presence of explosives if trained to do so. It is very difficult to seal anything so tightly that no scent of the substance inside is present, even if it means a few molecules. The bonus of this approach would be catching would-be smugglers of illegal narcotics more easily. There could be a row ten canines sniffing, each of them trained to smell particular substances. No doubt one of them would bark at the oxycodone in my pocket or carry-on but showing a prescription would clear the matter in seconds. And if there was no reaction, I would demand to see the person in charge and ask why the dogs were not trained properly. I am not suggesting that a dog would be allowed to stick its snout in someone's crotch, but that hardly would be necessary. With our technology building an artificial nose or snout shouldn't be something out of a science fiction novel. If we are able to see what elements are present in a star millions of light years away, the "sniffer" should be relatively simple to construct. Built a few extra and send them to penitentiaries to be used on all personnel who can leave and re-enter the premises. Of course, that could result in an acute shortage of guards...

Why not ask the Israelis for help and advice? No matter what each one of us thinks of their politics and treatment of the poor souls in the Gaza Strip, we must admit that they have taken security to a new level. Yes, of course there have been terrorist strikes within the country, but they seem to have lessened in number. El Al would undoubtedly be my choice for an airline if I was worried about terrorism. Probably more attempts are planned to destroy their aircraft in flight than with any other airline, yet the Israelis seem to be a step or two ahead of the bad guys. All luggage is subjected to sudden drop in air pressure, at one time a popular trigger mechanism of explosives once the plane climbs to its cruising altitude. And I don't think the young, naive but dangerous Nigerian man would have been allowed on an El Al flight. A one-way ticket, paid in cash, to the United States via two African countries and traveling with no luggage should have raised a red flag even with Timbuktu Air.

If a foreign banker contacts American officials overseas and tells them of his fears about his son becoming a radical and a militant, such information should be taken very seriously. Why the young man had been issued a multiple-entry and -year visa to the U.S. is beyond my comprehension. There are artists, such as musicians, who have been invited to perform in this country, yet they cannot secure a visa. A couple years back a small orchestra from my native Finland wanted to come and play in cities where there is a sizable Finnish community, Seattle included. They all had to travel many hours to visit the American Consulate  in Helsinki, where each of them were interviewed and questioned. A string player from a peaceful town on the West Coast of my country hardly presents a danger to the United States, not even a violist! Yet normally a Finn can enter this country without a visa, by filling a simple form during the flight here.

So, quickly start training those dogs or build at least a prototype of a mechanical canine! I want to feel as safe as the next Joe, even if he happens to be Joe Camel or Joe the Plumber himself.

Newark Airport mess, AP Photo/Rich Schultz