Terminal Madness: An Essay on Security
From Ask the Pilot
In early 2010, things were taken to the next level with the introduction of full-body scanners at European and U.S. airport. This is the latest and one of the more disheartening developments in our long war on the abstract noun called terrorism. What’s next, we have to ask, in this unwinnable arms race / shell game? Where will it end? Or is this the end?
If, a decade ago, we were told that people would soon have to appear naked in order to board an airplane, the claim would have been met by peals of laughter and howls of outrage. But here it has come to pass, and what’s our reaction? One or two muffled complaints and quiet acquiescence.
“Well, if it means we’re safer…” That’s what people say. Except, ignoring for a minute the perils of swapping away rights for security, they don’t really mean it. Safety? Is that what this is about? Obviously not. After all, you’re far more likely to be killed in a highway crash than be blown up on an airliner, so why aren’t we out there spending billions and stripping away liberties in the name of highway safety? We still hear righteous cries of fascism any time the cops set up DWI roadblocks — heaven forbid “the man” make me blow into a tube — but sure, I’ll doff my boxers if it protects me from “terror.”
No less frustrating is the strained notion that, beginning with the events of September 11th, air travel suddenly entered a brand new age of unprecedented danger and threat. We’re asked to accept some “new reality” of air travel, when really the risks aren’t much different than they were ten, twenty, or thirty years ago. The attacks of 2001 stand as terrorism’s defining spectacle, and the ongoing threat of future attacks cannot be denied.
However, acts of political violence against civil aviation are hardly a recent phenomenon. In fact we see far fewer of them than we used to. By comprison, once can remember the 1970s and 1980s as sort of Golden Age of Air Crimes, rich with hijackings and bombings. Over one five-year span between 1985 and 1989 we can count at least six high-profile terrorist attacks against commercial planes or airports. These include the horrific bombings of Pan Am 103 and UTA 772, the bombing of an Air India 747 over the North Atlantic that killed 329 people, and the saga of TWA flight 847.
Flight 847, headed from Athens to Rome, was hijacked by Shiite militiamen armed with grenades and pistols. The purloined 727 then embarked on a remarkable, 17-day odyssey to Lebanon, Algeria, and back again. At one point passengers are removed, split into groups and held captive in downtown Beirut. The photograph of TWA captain John Testrake, his head out the cockpit window, collared by a gun-wielding terrorist, was broadcast worldwide and became an unforgettable icon of the siege.
I say “unforgettable” but that’s just the thing. How many Americans remember flight 847? We act as if the clock didn’t began ticking until September 11th, 2001. In truth we’ve been dealing with this stuff for decades. It’s astonishing how short our memories are. And partly because they’re so short, we are easily frightened and manipulated.
Might as well read the whole thing.