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Get into a mission mode

Security has become as divisive as organised religion and is in desperate need of some common sense. We must distinguish between politically-motivated reduction and rationalisation based on real threat perceptions, writes Pratik Kanjilal.

columns Updated: Oct 09, 2009 16:40 IST

Security has become as divisive as organised religion and is in desperate need of some common sense. In India, we believe it’s a fashion accessory from the days of the robber barons. If you have more armed attendants, you’re a bigger cheese. In America, they believe it’s a tribal ritual, a sacrament that affirms allegiance to the human family. When these belief systems clash, there are fireworks.

Continental Airlines has prudently apologised for frisking Abdul Kalam but the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) insists that it had blamelessly followed ritual… sorry, procedure. The TSA is the choirboy of the Department of Homeland Security, the mother church of Fortress America. Both were created in response to 9/11, export absurd security concerns worldwide and regard their work as a holy calling rather than a profession. Guess that counts as licence to be illogical.

At www.tsa.gov, you’ll find permitted cabin baggage items that Indian airport security would never let through: lighters, matches, scissors with four-inch blades and screwdrivers, wrenches and pliers seven inches long, all useless for regular passengers but handy components of a hijacker’s toolkit.

They will chuck your little manicure kit while waving through battery-powered devices which can be used to trigger a bomb. We can’t question their wisdom, of course. They’re on a mission. America adores missions. Missionary, moon mission, mission statement, Mission Impossible…

Part of their mission is to randomly pick out passengers for close and loving scrutiny. Kalam just happened to be the lucky dip winner. But there have always been suspicions that this ritual is not entirely random but involves profiling. In Parliament, Sitaram Yechury wanted to know if the selection of the former President owed to his Muslim name. Personally, I’d like to know how frequently Continental frisks Bill Clinton.

Common sense suggests that TSA should reveal the methodology for selection, but that would be a security breach. Can’t diss security, you know, we live in dangerous times. Common sense would also have reliably informed the Continental executive who insisted on Kalam’s search that he was the passenger least likely to bomb a plane. But we can’t let common sense cloud our judgement either.

What outraged our parliamentarians was that this event did nothing to advance public security. All it achieved was to illustrate that before the great totem of American security, all men and women are equal and must bend low. It reminds one of Pope Gregory making the Holy Roman Emperor walk barefoot in the snow to meet him in Canossa.

We aren’t being very sensible in India either, squabbling in Parliament over security cover. Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination showed that reduction can have tragic consequences but the use of securitymen as fashion accessories has been widely disliked. We must distinguish between politically-motivated reduction and rationalisation based on real threat perceptions.

P. Chidambaram has set an example by refusing security. It’s a fine but intemperate gesture because the Home Minister is the second most valuable target in government. His review was opposed by politicians from the cow belt, where being armed and dangerous is basic survival strategy. But it might have been accepted if he had instituted transparent evaluations. Ironically, of course, this would have put him at the head of the list of people requiring a security upgrade.

Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine