Governments are unwittingly colluding with terrorists. Sounds hard to believe? Think about it! Disgruntled individuals who believe their cause is enhanced through inflicting harm on others by boarding aircraft with explosives rarely succeed. The British shoe-bomber Richard Reid, a former petty crook, is wiling away his life in a US maximum-security penitentiary after his unsuccessful attempt to blow up a commercial airliner in 2001. Likewise, Omar Farouq Abdul Muttalib, commonly known as the underwear bomber following his efforts to destroy Northwest Airlines Flight 253, is facing potential life imprisonment.
Thankfully, their nefarious schemes were thwarted. But if their aim was to make other people's lives miserable, they have succeeded. Their actions or rather the response of governments to them have greatly impacted the travelling public to the extent that flying from Europe to the US has become not only tedious and tortuous but humiliating. Passengers heading to American airports can now expect to be patted down and forbidden from leaving their seats one hour before landing. They are also warned to expect queues and flight delays.
Worse, airports in the US, Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Nigeria and Australia are introducing body scanners while the EU is deciding whether or not to make the imaging technology mandatory for all of its 27 member countries. The scans are so revealing that they show every contour of a person's body and threaten to breach Britain's child pornography laws as well as European privacy laws.
Although many people accept this new technology as necessary to keep them safe, it is particularly offensive to anyone who values modesty, such as Muslims and Orthodox Jews. On Wednesday, the Rabbinical Centre of Europe issued a statement saying the scanners violated the rights of religious Jewish women.
Other groups have other concerns. Some claim that radiation from the equipment poses a health risk; others say they are unable to detect the type of powder plastic explosive used by Reid and Abdul Muttalib and are, thus, ineffective. All agree that use of the scanners will cause flight delays as each scan takes approximately three minutes to process as opposed to one minute for a regular pat-down.
My own take is that the introduction of body scanners is a gross overreaction. If the system that is already in place had worked, Abdul Muttalib would never have been able to board in the first place. His own father was so concerned about his mental state that he warned the CIA, which waited a month before pronouncing him a terrorist suspect and didn't even bother to add the crazed young man to America's ‘No-Fly List'. Had America's intelligence community done its job ordinary people wouldn't be forced to suffer indignity and delays.
Nationals from 14 countries that are all predominantly Muslim, apart from Cuba, will be subject to added woes in the form of airport profiling; a technique that has recently been approved by US President Barack Obama, who is keen to show his right-wing critics that he isn't soft on terrorism. The countries concerned are not amused. It is one thing to profile travellers according to their appearance or behaviour and quite another to do so on the basis of nationality. This method is not only discriminatory and offensive, it won't work. All determined terrorist organisations have to do is equip their members with fake or second passports. Alternatively, they could easily recruit people who don't fit the known profile to do their dirty work.
There is no such thing as a 100 per cent failsafe antidote to terrorism in the skies, just as there is no guarantee that your commuter train won't derail or your car won't burst a tyre. Indeed, statistically, travelling by air is still one of the safest ways of getting around. Governments do have a duty to keep their nationals safe by minimising the risk but, at the same time, they should take a balanced approach. Instead of punishing travellers, they should study terrorism's root causes, maximise pre-flight intelligence, coordinate with the intelligence services of other countries, and use behavioural profiling. Pre-flight intelligence could have stopped Abdul Muttalib in his tracks, while the oddball Richard Reid was a profiler's dream.
It's time that the authorities used their brains instead of knee-jerk reactions to maintain security in the air. They could begin by placing armed air marshals on every flight. Taking naked images of 80-year-old grandmothers and keeping strapped-in 10-year-olds from using the toilet just won't cut it.
Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Some of the comments may be considered for publication.