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Sunday, Jan. 10, 2010

Why not search body cavities?


LONDON — It is the duty of all public officials to "do something" whenever a new threat appears, even if there is nothing sensible to be done. If they don't make a show of solving the problem, the media will punish them severely. So we have had a vigorous U.S. government response to the recent apprehension of the Underpants Bomber.

Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab was from Nigeria, and he was Muslim. Therefore, the U.S. government has announced that all travelers to the United States from Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Yemen and seven other Muslim or partly Muslim countries will face extra checks at airport security. They will be patted down by hand, and their carry-on bags will also be searched by hand. So that's all fixed, then. No more exploding underpants.

Except that Abdulmutallab's underpants were on his body, so hand searches of cabin baggage aren't going to help much. Moreover, it is far from certain that a physical pat-down of Abdulmutallab would have detected the guilty underpants.

Then there are the curious additions and omissions in the list of countries affected. Cuba is included, presumably to have at least one non-Muslim country on the list, although there has never been any Cuban support for anti-U.S. terrorism. (Rather the other way around, in fact, though that was long ago now.)

More striking is the absence of Britain, France and the Netherlands from the list of countries whose travelers must get the full treatment. Britain was the home of Richard Reid, the unsuccessful Shoe Bomber, who actually departed for the U.S. from Paris. The group who were caught preparing to smuggle explosive liquids aboard U.S.-bound flights in aerosol containers were British. Abdulmutallab actually passed through Schiphol airport security in the Netherlands on his way to Detroit.

Why are these countries exempt? Probably because the number of visitors from those countries is too large. The number could be cut down drastically if "profiling" were permissible, since not very many non-Muslim suicide bombers attack the U.S. Yet, even profiling entire countries for special searches brought an anguished protest from Nawar Shora of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee: "This is extreme and very dangerous. All of a sudden people are labeled as related to terrorism because of the nation they're from."

And profiling individuals is an absolute no-go area: all the Christian Nigerians (half of the population) must be patted down too. For every young Muslim male who is selected for a more intensive search, one non-Muslim grandmother must be pulled aside as well.

This is starting to sound like a rant, but I'm not actually demanding more stringent security measures. I am arguing in favor of less "security" at the airport, and a lot more emphasis on real security work before the would-be bombers check in.

With the sole exceptions of Richard Reid and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, all the plots to blow up airliners bound for the U.S. since 9/11 have been thwarted by the intelligence services, not by the hundreds of thousands of poorly paid "security" personnel who staff the gates at the airports. And they didn't catch either Reid or Abdulmutallab.

What conclusions should we draw from that? We should conclude that further "enhancements" to airport security are a total waste of time and money, although basic security that stops people from smuggling guns and knives aboard aircraft should be maintained.

Don't reward the politicians for submitting to the idiotic measures that the media demand of them. Accept that nothing is perfect, and remember that you are still 50 times more likely to die in a car crash than in an aircraft crash, whether caused by human error, technical failure or underpants bomb.

The alternative is to try to close every loophole — and the obvious hole in airport security today is the fact that they do not check for anal bombs.

The first suicide bomber with an explosive device in his rectum has already struck, although not on an aircraft. Four months ago, an al-Qaida-linked militant passed through all the security checks and blew himself up during an audience with Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, Saudi Arabia's deputy interior minister. His bomb was presumably detonated by remote control, but an airline passenger could simply go to the toilet and trigger it himself.

If Abdulmutallab had boarded the Detroit-bound aircraft with the explosive device inside his body rather than sewn into his underpants, how were the security staff going to find it? Only by the time-tested method that prison guards regularly use: the "body cavity search."

This could obviously be done at airports too. You'd have to hire five or six times as many guards and expand the security area considerably to give those being searched some privacy, but if we were really determined to eliminate every threat to air travel, every suspicious body cavity could be searched. Just bend over, please, sir or madam.

Yet nobody has proposed putting this policy into effect, and that is not because they are worried about a shortage of latex gloves. The whole airport security mania is largely symbolic, and body cavity searches would upset far more people than they would reassure — so in this case, common sense trumps "security." It should do so in many other cases too.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.


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