As I write this, I am sitting in the departure lounge of Ayers Rock airport. My set of miniature screwdrivers has just been “surrendered”, for which read confiscated, as I was going through security screening. They are classified as "tools, and other things with sharp edges or points capable of injuring a person".
The prohibition on taking all sorts of potential weapons onto aircraft was introduced in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and Pentagon on September 11, 2001. There was a perceived need to address the security vulnerability exploited by the terrorists, and the new restrictions were presented as being required for that purpose: to deprive terrorists of the types of weapons used that day. Since X-ray screening had long existed, to prevent people from taking firearms on board, it was easy to add new items to the list of things you cannot take into the aircraft cabin.
Yet it is clear that the new restrictions fail. First, they do not deprive would-be-terrorists of their improvised weapons. No doubt the rules reduce the number of potential weapons that are to be found on board an aircraft, but that was never the problem. The terrorists had not relied on a chance availability of improvised weapons. They had planned in advance and taken box cutters with them.
But with the screening now in place, this just means a would-be-terrorist would have to acquire their weapons beyond the screening point. My miniature screwdrivers were really not that dangerous, and as a weapon would be equalled by the ballpoint pens available in the airport shop made in the form of a gecko lizard.The body of the gecko makes a convenient handle when using the pen to stab someone.
If I really wanted to get a dangerous weapon onto the aircraft, it would not be hard. As I sit in the departure lounge, I can see, a few feet away, hanging on the wall, some historical pictures relating to the airport. Four of them have protective glass. All I have to do is take one off the wall, and retire to the ladies room with it. A couple of well placed scratches with the small diamond in my wedding ring, and I will have a nifty sharp dagger at my disposal. I can use sticky tape (which has not yet been prohibited, but probably will be once this article is published) to form a handle.
The second reason the restrictions fail is that the vulnerability the terrorists used that September Tuesday had already ceased to exist by Wednesday, because it consisted of two elements. The first element was the ability to take box cutters on board, but the second, and essential, element, was the prevailing view that planes are hijacked so that their passengers can be used as hostages in subsequent negotations. Consequently, everyone, including the passengers, thought the best strategy for survival was to co-operate with the hijackers.
On Wednesday, that element of surprise was absent. Anyone trying to use box cutters, or any other weapon (with the possible exception of firearms) would get severely beaten by passengers who have little regard for the niceties of law enforcement, and no regard at all for the welfare of someone suspected of intending to commit mass murder.
Another activity going on at the screening point is random checking for explosives. This is to address a concern that a terrorist might try to destroy an aircraft in a suicide bombing, as the so called "shoe bomber" attempted to do. It is doubtful that random checking is achieving much. The authorities are trying to use the threat of criminal sanction to prevent unlawful conduct by lunatics and fanatics. It is difficult to see how someone bent on suicide and mass murder would be deterred by the mere possibility, with no great probability, of getting caught prior to the act. This highlights the flaw in the approach - the authorities are looking at things from the perspective of the law-abiding citizen, rather than that of a terrorist.
Until now, this sort of spurious security measure has been confined to airports, but there are worrying signs of it being extended to other areas. In particular, it has been suggested by the NSW Government that random searching of bags for explosives be introduced on public transport. This cannot achieve its objective of preventing terrorism for the same reason that random testing for explosives is pointless at airports.
A different aspect of the governmental response to terrorism was illustrated in Sydney recently, where an evacuation exercise was conducted. This showed how the authorities intend to address a terrorist threat in the Sydney business district. The idea is to evacuate people to a number of identified places.
The powers-that-be have defended this approach despite it being pointed out that all they would be doing is concentrating people in a few places, making them an easy target for a suicide bomber. The concept is absurd. Terrorists attack people when they are grouped in large numbers. The best way to avoid being a victim is to stay away from groups.
For people in Sydney, the most effective strategy when faced with a terrorist threat or act is to move away from the windows, but otherwise stay put.
It is always much easier to criticise the efforts of others than to provide solutions of one’s own, and the threat of terrorism is a very difficult problem to solve. Still, this does not mean that the procedures put in place by the government should just be accepted. So far, they have been largely a waste of money, because the authorities have lost the plot on security.