Should Airports Extend Their Security Perimeters? No.

Any time there’s a bombing like the one in Brussels earlier this week, the chorus of people suggesting knee-jerk reactions gets much louder. The explosions at the Brussels airport occurred before security, in the departure hall, and that has led to a lot of what may seem like rational thought at first. As USA Today, asked, should airports extend their security perimeters? In other words, should the ticketing area join the gates behind security? I’m with the experts quoted in that story. No.

Security Lines Outside the Terminal

You can see how people might reach this conclusion before really thinking it through. The terrorists blew themselves up just outside security? Let’s move security back a bit further. Problem solved. But that doesn’t solve the problem. It just moves it elsewhere.

The idea that security was important to have at US airports goes back to the good old days when people just wanted to hijack an airplane. But hijacking turned into bombings, and the government had to do something. It wasn’t until the 1970s that metal detectors and carry-on bag x-rays became mandatory. Then it was well into the 1980s before checked bag screening became a major concern. (Remember Pan Am 103? Yeah. That.)

You’d think setting up some basic security along those lines would be enough, but there’s a problem: terrorists love airplanes. Airplanes are a good way to kill a group of people with relative ease. And taking down an airplane was guaranteed to be an international incident since that’s the very nature of air travel. As flying has become safer, each fatality becomes more and more shocking. Terrorists love that kind of stuff.

Of course, after the elaborate plot to hijack and crash 4 airplanes into iconic buildings occurred in 2001, security efforts went crazy. We talked about this a bit on Monday; most of it is just theater. Still, it’s an entrenched part of society that is meant to protect a fairly unique thing in the world, flying machines that can not only be harmed but can also cause incredible harm in the wrong hands.

So if we now find that ticket counters are in danger (something that has been predicted for ages), then it might make sense to move the secure area back. But if you think about it for a minute, you’ll realize how wrong that is. While airplanes are unique in that they can be used as a weapon, airports can’t. They can’t be redirected into a skyscraper. Nor can they be hijacked to Cuba. They’re just buildings where a lot of people have to gather in order to do what they want to do.

If we were to extend the security checkpoint to be outside the building, then what? Everyone would have to gather outside that checkpoint just to go through security to get to the ticket counter. That creates the same opportunity outside the building that terrorists already have inside the building today. They can still target massive groups of people huddled in one place, so what’s the point? All it does is make the travel experience more of a hassle.

If we start adding security just to get to a ticket counter, then we have to think about all the other places that are nearly identical. The pre-security airport, where people stand around and transact, is a lot like subway and train stations (which were also a part of the Brussels attack), ferry terminals, movie theaters, shopping malls, bus stations, etc. Many of these places can be just as international as an airport, if that matters to a terrorist.

Do we need to install metal detectors in all of these places? Some will argue that we should. To me that just sounds like a terrible way to live. Countless hours will be wasted going through security while providing little in the way of protection. So what should we do?

Bombings aren’t infrequent events around the world. If you live in some parts of the Middle East or Africa, it’s a common concern. It used to be common in Western Europe as well, but the days of the IRA and ETA are over. That’s one reason why bombings in Western Europe become headline news in the US today while bombings in other places don’t.

It was less than a week before the Brussels attack that Ankara in Turkey was hit. That barely received a mention, but then again, it was the fifth attack in Turkey in the last 6 months. The Ivory Coast saw nearly 2 dozen people mowed down just a few days earlier. (The other more sinister reason is that people seem to care more when something happens to people who are more like themselves. When Americans see a bombing in Western Europe, it hits much closer to home.)

But we should be paying much closer attention to those places where bombing is more frequent to better understand how they handle security efforts there. Israel is obviously a great place to look since it is considered to be a more free country than others in the region, yet it has to have rigorous safety efforts.

You might say, “but the Tel Aviv airport has a security inspection long before anyone gets near the terminal.” That’s true, but it’s a relatively small airport in a very special situation. It’s not practical to do that in major international hubs. But we should listen to what some in Israel are saying about these attacks to learn the best way to help prevent them. The Jerusalem Post, for example, calls it a major intelligence failure.

There had apparently been chatter about an attack at the airport, and security should have been stepped up dramatically. Bring in a bunch of police if you expect something to happen. And do I mind temporary checkpoints before reaching a terminal in response to a specific threat? Not at all. We’ve seen that deployed previously and it makes sense. If there is a real threat, then absolutely step things up until that has passed. But just throwing up security barriers to trade an illusion of safety for a hugely inconvenient life just can’t be the right answer.

At least I hope not.

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