The Airport Security Ritual

Post 9/11, post the Shoe Bomber and and post, for want of a better description, the Pants Bomber I’ve had to travel to the United States in the aftermath of a security incident and have had the dubious privilege of witnessing at first hand the incrementally heightened security procedures that have been put in place. Witnessed as a passenger I might add, so I can only pass comment on what I’ve seen and not what may or may not be going on hidden behind the scenes and out of site of me and my fellow passengers.

Even pre 9/11, airport and airline security seemed to rely on a degree of ritual, of knowing the right incantations and of knowing the right answer to give to certain key questions; “is this your bag?“, “did you pack it yourself?“, “could anyone have tampered with your luggage?” and “has anyone given you anything to carry?“. Answer the previous questions with “yes, yes, no, no” and you would be granted the honour of being able to check in and pass to the mysterious land of “airside“. Answer them incorrectly or get the yes’s and no’s in the wrong order and your life would become very interesting.

At Heathrow yesterday morning, prior to getting on my (much delayed) flight to San Francisco, I remembered to give the aforementioned answers in the right order (this is critical to success), took off my belt and shoes, took my laptop out of my bag, put the whole lot in large grey plastic trays and while they passed through the x-ray machine, I passed through the metal detector with nary a beep.

Lulled into a false sense of security (no pun intended) I made it to the departure gate in time, to be greeted with a large, slowly shuffling queue with the prospect of a bag search and a more personal search when I reached the head of the line. Now granted, the personal search of my person was thorough, verged on being ticklish and might have been liable to cause offence to other people but my bag search was a search only in the loosest possible sense of the word.

A nice security lady (I know this for a fact because she had a badge on saying Security) opened my bag, took a cursory look inside, commented “that’s a lot of computery stuff” and then proceeded to not actually search my bag at all. More ritual one assumes, the mere act of presenting my bag for a cursory poke and prod being enough to satisfy this particular one.

I was asked to empty the pockets of my jacket, which yielded an iPhone, a BlackBerry and my wallet. These weren’t checked or looked at and neither was my jacket looked at to make sure that I had indeed actually emptied the pockets. Yet more ritual; providing something from my pockets seemed acceptable and left me wondering what would have happened if I actually didn’t have anything in them.

Did any of this make my (much delayed) flight safer? Maybe, it’s difficult to tell. But overall the whole experience seemed to be about doing something for the sake of security and being seen to be doing it.

So has any of this made my travel to the US any different? It’s certainly made it slower, more intrusive, more frustrating and more laden with things I’m not allowed to do and not allowed to travel with. But has it made it any more secure? Taking the evidence of both the Shoe and Pants Bombers into account, both of whom made it through security and onto a plane which subsequently took off, it doesn’t really appear so.

This ritual of security isn’t restricted to the airline industry. Last year I paid a visit to UK headquarters of a technology company who were hosting an event I was to speak at. Half way through security, I was asked to sign a non disclosure agreement, which required me to promise not to reveal anything I heard or saw whilst on the premises. Which seemed a bit pointless seeing as I was one of the speakers; did this mean I wasn’t allowed to repeat my talk ever again? The security lady was insistent. I wouldn’t be allowed into the building without signing the NDA. Heels were well dug in by this point and I refused to sign it. She didn’t bat an eyelid and rather than being escorted from the building I was handed a security pass. More ritual, the point of which seemed to be that she had to insist about the NDA and then hand me a security pass regardless of whether I signed the NDA or not.

But existing rituals had been satisfied, and new ones called into being, so I guess that’s something.

Photo credit: Ned Richards and Milo Willingham on Flickr.

Written somewhere between LHR and SFO on BA285 and posted from the Sheraton Hotel, Sunnyvale, California (37.37159, -122.03824)

Posted via email from Gary’s Posterous

3 Comments

  • Granted, most things introduced after 11-9 (or 9/11 depending on your time locale) are mere security theatre.

    But the fact that the shoe and pants bombers made it on board is not a sign that security failed. Some argue the fact that they failed is a result of security succeeding. One can assume that the effectiveness of their attacks were hampered by the screening (limiting the amount of stuff they could take and the delivery platform — e.g. no metal containers for more effective explosions) and by swift action of fellow passengers. (Of course the latter bit of security is never mentioned as politicians and security vendors cannot take credit for it or make money from it).

    I heard arguments that the pants bomber expected to fail. If the intention was to down the plane, he’d have executed the attack in a more concealed location to improve his chances. The main intention was to cause terror — and our politicians let him succeed by overreacting as planned.

  • Not dissimilar to my recent experience of being asked for ID to enter a government building… Pure theatre. Fairly pointless.

    http://paulclarke.com/honestlyreal/2010/01/feelings-form-and-function/

  • Also enforcing my “Inappropriate Stuff For Kids” agenda – What were Playmobil thinking?!