Thursday, August 10, 2006

Safety is an illusion

MSNBC.COM -- Probably 8 or 9 months ago I read this chilling article about this woman who witnessed something rather odd on an airplane, enough so that her magazine let her write a really long piece about it, even though it wasn't relevant to the topic of the magazine (a women's magazine) because they were worried that the story might be lost. She told of a group of middle-eastern looking men who when they first boarded the plane seemed unfamiliar to one another. They carried on various items, including a bag from McDonalds. One of them was friendly with her. Over the course of the flight they made a number of trips to the bathroom. The one who had been nice to her was now avoiding her gaze, they were all acting really somber and some spoke to one another in a way that suggested to her that they did in fact know each other.

She was also able to notice that the McDonalds bag accompanied one of the passengers to the bathroom several times and the shape of its contents changed.

It wasn't until she had landed and was able to discuss with colleagues and friends before it became obvious what she had probably witnessed -- a trial run at multiple terrorists bringing individual items -- by themselves harmless -- and assembling them to create some sort of weapon, probably a bomb.

The first thing that came to mind this morning when I heard that a large number of people were arrested, it made me think that maybe they were decoys. Sure, vigilance is up, everyone's uneasy, but they also think the worst case scenario has been all or mostly been taken care of.

I hope that's not the case, that they weren't decoys.

But I've always marvelled at what qualified as security. Take Disneyland for one. We'd go, taking our own stroller with us. They'd never check the stroller that carefully, in some cases not even asking us to remove and open the diaper bag stored under the stroller. It would be very easy to smuggle a large bomb in ala Atlanta, designed to hurt a large number of people. You could even couple that with a bundled up "sleeping baby" and a "woman" in a burka and who's going to suspect a woman with a baby in a stroller, not knowing it's really a guy with a trolley full of explosives?

Or, as the article suggests, just bring the bomb to the airport. Especially now with the lines really long at the security checkpoint, you could do a lot of damage on the insecure side of the security checkpoint. Suddenly, Los Angeles' "shortsightedness" of having the Green Line come within a few blocks of the airport without stopping at it seems smart, one less way to deliver a bomb to the airport itself.

I don't think it will be long before:

(a) all prescriptions have a unique barcode on them to make sure that they really
were prescribed by a licensed physician and to the person carrying them (to combat Limbaugh-disease and mad bombers)

(b) the design of airports will be rethought. Soon you will park further away and go through security and checkin right away. You'll surrender your baggage at the parking lot and then be whisked directly to the terminal on board a fast shuttle that doesn't make any stops.

(c) the concept of air travel itself will change. RyanAir already prohibits all carry-on items. Israeli Air doesn't announce flight departures. You show up and then you wait. When your flight is announced, you leave on it. But you don't know how long you'll wait. In the future, nearly all carryon will be banned. You'll be able to rent a personal entertainment center (I can't find a link but Southwest or Alaska already offers this on some flights) that allows you to listen to music or watch movies or surf the internet at your seat. A smart airline will get "customer service points" when they start handing out bottles of water when you first get on the plane. I could even see a time where you book a destination, but not a flight. You don't know until you get to the airport what flight you will be on and if you'll even be traveling with your adult colleagues or family members. Luggage will come on separate flights jointly operated by the airlines and delivered to your hotel on their timetable. (Companies, including the airlines, will be happy to rent you a cell phone or laptop at your destination.)


(d) We'll forget all about this stuff, start grumbling about having to take off our shoes until the next time someone is arrested or successfully blows up a plane or figures out something even more devastating.
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