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Airport Security: Is Israel the Answer?

5 years ago
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Well, Alex, there's one obvious solution to the rampant dysfunction you so colorfully describe in that hilarious recap of your recent journey from India back to the United States. And I can sum it up in one word: Israel.

Over the past week or so, much ink has been spilled over the pros and cons of airport security techniques as diverse as body scanners (child porn?), passenger profiling (racist or just plain smart?) and the prohibition on bathroom breaks during the last hour of the flight (cruel and unusual punishment?). Surprisingly, what people aren't talking so much about are the methods employed by the country that pioneered and perfected aviation security, Israel.

Israel has lived with terrorist threats since its inception as a nation-state. A fascinating article in The Toronto Star last week provided a detailed explanation of the multi-tiered, incredibly effective and -- by all accounts -- remarkably efficient system that the Israelis have devised to both detect and manage security threats at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport. Despite facing dozens of potential threats each day, that airport's security has not been breached since 2002, when a passenger mistakenly carried a handgun onto a flight. The kicker: There aren't even long lines.

Here's how it works: From the moment you drive into the parking lot of the airport from one of two entrances, armed guards are there to monitor your car and ask you two questions: How are you and why are you here? Once inside, more questions follow as you wait in line to check in, accompanied by hand inspections of your bags when security personnel deem that wise. Finally, there's a layer of scanners and metal detectors. At all stages of the process, the Israelis employ profiling, but it's not profiling based on race, but on behavior. They are looking for things like body language and profuse sweating and other signs of unease. Crucially -- and in contrast to the United States -- your bag remains with you until your security check is complete, and you do the security check before you obtain your ticket, not after.

What really distinguishes the Israeli security measures, however, is the extensive use of questioning. It's not just the casual "Have your bags been with you since you packed them?" sort of thing. It is, instead, detailed and probing and -- significantly -- once the security official starts asking you questions, s/he will never once take his eyes off of yours. This can, of course, be disconcerting. When I attended a wedding in Israel a few years back, a friend of mine -- young, single, male and traveling with two different passports, one British and one Australian -- was detained for several hours by the airport security team. Among other things, they asked to see all of the photos he'd taken on his trip and asked him why he didn't appear in any of them. (Answer: He was taking the pictures). Another friend was asked to give the security officials a pair of her jeans . . . to keep. They never told her why.

There are several reasons to think that moving towards the Israeli model would be superior to the sorts of measures that the U.S. and the U.K. have begun to implement in recent weeks. For starters, as Ria points out, profiling people by country is not a sure-fire way to screen all would-be terrorists. By enflaming the embers of anti-Islamic sentiment, this tactic could actually incite more people to commit acts of terror out of sheer resentment, rather than contain such acts.

It's also not clear that the best measure of the effectiveness of our airport security apparatus is the number of thwarted attacks, as is often thought to be the case. The best measure of our security is actually the number of attacks that aren't even attempted because would-be perpetrators fear being caught. That's counter-factual, and so it's impossible to know for sure. Still, looking at the ratio between the number of people who've said explicitly that they'd like to wipe Israel off the face of the earth and the number of attacks occurring at Ben Gurion over the last few decades, you'd have to say that the Israeli strategy seems to be working in this regard.

There are, to be sure, a number of costs to so-called Israelification. The difference in scale between the size of Israel and the U.S., for example, is enormous. By American standards, in terms of passengers served, Ben Gurion is like a busy regional airport on the order of Sacramento. So implementing Israeli-style security measures nationwide would be quite a feat.

For one thing, retraining employees at the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Agency along the lines of the Israeli model -- and both entities are already organizationally challenged -- would be both labor-intensive and expensive.

Finally, if Jan thinks civil liberties issues are involved in America's newest watch lists and security measures, those pale in comparison to the kind of liberties you'd need to give up were this scenario enacted (see above on photos and jeans). "Intrusive" would get a whole new meaning, something Bonnie got a taste of two years ago.

To be clear, I'm not advocating a full-scale Israelification for the United States' airports (although the U.K.'s smaller size makes it a much better candidate). But if we really want to talk turkey where airport security is concerned, we should certainly be at least considering it.

Follow Delia on Twitter.

Filed Under: Terror, International, Woman Up
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