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Terror laid bare

By Chris Berg - posted Thursday, 25 February 2010

Flying is awful - and it looks like it's only going to get worse. The actual "flying" part can be all right if you get one of those exotic personal entertainment systems with a trillion movies and every kind of Tetris rip-off imaginable.

Modern airlines come in two types: those that pride themselves on their hospitality, and those that pride themselves on abusing the goodwill of passengers to keep costs down. Either way, commercial airlines aim to please in some fashion.

But not even George Clooney in Up in the Air was able to make traversing the government's airport security checkpoints look elegant.


Sociologists of the future will describe this as the "ritual" of travel: lists of what you can and cannot take into the plane; convenient check-in machines complemented by impossibly long baggage lines; the security barriers; making sure you remove your laptop; taking off your belt; and being swabbed for bomb residue.

Hop on a plane to the US and it's worse. Since the underpants bomber failed to blow up his underpants on Christmas Day last year, airport security frisks passengers so intimately they can not only detect bombs in jocks, but can detonate them by hand.

Kevin Rudd has announced an extra $200 million for airport security. "It may," said the Prime Minister in his best leadership voice, "mean it takes longer for passengers to pass through security, but the government believes that this inconvenience is a small price to pay for increased security". (Incidentally, the prime ministerial jet was renovated in 2007, at a cost of $100,000.)

We'll be paying this "small price" because the Prime Minister has decided to install full body scanners in Australian airports, scanners that can see through clothing to get almost naked images of passengers.

No surprise that some people worry about the privacy implications. In Britain, there is even serious concern that body scanners breach child porn laws. It's illegal to create indecent images of children, and that's what happens when children go through body scanners designed to look under clothing.

Privacy issues aside, what's the point? Body scanners will be just another ceremony added to the elaborate ritual of travel - prime examples of "security theatre". We might feel safer, but we're not actually safer.


After all, how much safer could we possibly be? The risk of terrorism is infinitesimally small.

In the United States, there is an average of just one terrorist incident every 16.5 million flights, according to the US Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

In Australia, there are half a million domestic flights per year. Every day more than 100,000 people fly from one Australian city to another; 50,000 more either leave or enter the country.

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First published in The Sunday Age on February 22, 2010.

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About the Author

Chris Berg is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs and editor of the IPA Review.

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