Last summer I had an unreal airport experience. This was at the Mundo Maya Airport in the Central American nation of Guatemala, the gateway to Tikal, the centre of Mayan civilisational wonders. Getting through security didn’t involve shedding various items of clothing and footwear; the security personnel actually smiled and, strangest of all, gangs of them did not swarm down and swat tourists in the departure lounge who clicked a few shots of planes on the tarmac.
Just in case you thought Guatemala is a nation divorced from the insecurity surro-unding security worldwide, that’s not quite the case. In its capital, Guatemala City, even the Pizza Hut near the presidential palace had an armed guard, possibly because the parlour contained weapons of mass indigestion.
I haven’t actually had an awful experience at a North American airport, yet. That’s probably because I’m not elite enough. Unlike former President APJ Abdul Kalam, who was recently given the treatment at New York’s JFK airport, damn protocol. That’s not an isolated instance. George Fernandes, the then defence minister, suffered at an American airport, as did Praful Patel last year, ironically while he was still minister of state for civil aviation. Civil aviation, though, may appear a contradiction in terms, as India’s former ambassador to Washington Meera Shankar could vouch, as her sari was considered threatening by officials of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) at the airport in Jackson, Mississippi. Or another ambassador, Hardeep Puri, India’s permanent representative to the United Nations, who has had turban trouble in Houston.
Perhaps being singled out for the treatment could be a new status symbol for Indians travelling in the US. They have Shah Rukh Khan, Kamal Hasan and Mammootty for company.
These incidents are often followed by apologies. As with President Kalam, who had had a similar experience with an American airline in 2009. Sorry doesn’t seem to be a difficult word for the US authorities, as India’s ambassador Nirupama Rao tweeted: “Senior TSA reps came 2 Emb 2 personally apologise.”
But that sorry state of affairs isn’t limited to the VVIPs. Frequent fliers should be tested for post-traumatic stress disorder. Airport security is overwhelming. In fact, just the thought of labouring through security checks may just have proved something of a cure for fear of flying. You may well be subjected to a pat-down examination that tends to be, at times, as comprehensive as an annual physical. By the time you’re done with all that, you’re just relieved to get onboard a flight, any flight.
Things got far tougher in the US after the inept Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmuttalab failed to detonate explosive material secreted in his underwear, while on a flight to Detroit. After the attempt by would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid in December 2001, footwear became a casualty at security checkpoints. Fortunately, similar logic wasn’t applied after Abdulmuttalab’s escapade. Small mercy.
There have been arguments that this hypersecurity environment in the US does not discriminate and has prevented major terrorist incidents on American soil since 9/11. Well, actually, jihadi major Nidal Hasan gunned down 13 people at the Fort Hood military base in Texas despite numerous red flags. Abdulmuttalab’s incompetence was copied by Pakistani-American Faisal Shahzad, who attempted to carbomb Times Square last year.
On the first point, they cite the frisking of former vice-president Al Gore and the late Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy. That still doesn’t make the situation any less ridiculous, just enhances its paranoia quotient. When infants and senior citizens are considered suspects and put through enhanced screening procedures, the system has problems.
Airports already have layers of preventive measures; with whole body imaging, metal detectors and wand-downs. There are comprehensive no-fly lists and ‘selectee’ lists of problematic individuals. Airline manifests are scrutinied. There is advanced biometrics involved in travel documentation. These are fine tools to keep flying safe.The problem arises when the people on the ground get into error mode, when they misidentify fliers with similar names to those on a watch list. Or just go overboard.
The best defence is often plain common sense. But as French thinker Voltaire once said, “Common sense is very rare.”
( Currently based in Toronto, Anirudh Bhattacharyya has been a New York-based foreign correspondent for eight years )
The views expressed by the author are personal