"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Monday, August 22, 2005

Safe As Milk 

So, it's back to the regular grind after a (mostly) lovely week in the Great White North. Didja miss me? Well, then - will you pretend that you did?

On several occasions during our travels, I found myself thinking about security. Or, more accurately, I found myself thinking about the illusion of security. It began on the ferry from San Juan Island to Victoria, B.C., when I heard someone on the public address system announce rather breathlessly that an "unidentified parcel in the shape of a guitar case" had been spotted on one of the decks. The owner was directed to claim it immediately, or else ... well, the "or else" was left unspecified, but the announcer's tone of voice left little doubt that the consequences would be dire.

This small crisis struck me odd in a couple of different ways. First, I would bet my last dollar that the parcel in the shape of a guitar case was, in fact, a guitar case. I will grant that calling it a guitar case still leaves some unanswered questions - specifically, is there a guitar in the guitar case, or is there something else, something sinister, hidden away in this particular guitar case - but calling it a guitar case doesn't sound nearly as ominous as calling it an unidentified parcel in the shape of a guitar case. So why do we suppose that the announcer chose to avoid calling a guitar case a guitar case?

But more to the point, it seemed rather odd to me that anyone would get all that concerned about a guitar case anyway, or even an unidentified parcel in the shape of a guitar case, for that matter. Not that a nefarious actor couldn't use a guitar case for evil purposes; why, there might be some kind of suitcase bomb (or, more properly, "guitar case bomb") lurking in that unidentified parcel in the shape of a guitar case. No guitar case can be above suspicion in our post 911 reality, I suppose. But really, unidentified parcels sneakily disguised as something innocent are not at all unusual on a ferry. In fact, this particular ferry held three whole decks of unidentified, abandoned packages, each capable of carrying explosives or other nasty items, and no one even noticed them. The worst part about all of these abandoned packages is that each one was cleverly disguised as an automobile! Some of them probably even had guitar cases packed away within them, and no one would be the wiser.

Seriously, if you were an international Islamofascist terrorist with heaven on your mind, determined to blow up a ferry, would you really drive on board - completely unmolested and unsearched, mind you - and park your car, only to carry your unidentified parcel of doom to the upper decks in a guitar case? Or, would you pack the trunk with C4 and blow the whole damn boat out of the water?

The problem, of course, is that there is no practical way to search every car boarding the ferry; in fact, given the volume of traffic, there is no practical way to search any of the cars boarding the ferry. If someone is really committed to the idea of doing mayhem on a ferry, we can't stop them. But we can make a big show out of tracking down the owners of unidentified guitar cases, and that makes us feel better. And after all, that's what it's all about - "security" as theater; the illusion of safety.

It's the same impulse that leads to checking ID when someone enters a federal building. Here's a news flash - bad guys carry ID, too. Checking ID does nothing to make anyone actually more safe, but it sure makes us feel good. Or, think of the stupid questions they ask at the airport check-in counter: Did anyone ask you to carry anything on board for them? No, certainly not, not unless you count this heavy package wrapped in brown paper that is mysteriously ticking even as we speak. I mean, really - is it even theoretically possible that a terrorist attack might be thwarted this way?

On Saturday morning, we returned to the States via the Sumas border crossing - not exactly a high-traffic route. Even so, the wait to get through customs took about 45 minutes. When we finally got to the gate, the man asked where we were going. "Home, to Seattle," I said. Did we have anything to declare? "A bag of corn. Twelve ears." To which the customs man replied, and I quote, "See ya." That was it - "see ya." He didn't even ask to see our ID (I guess it's easier to get into the country than it is getting into the local IRS office). Not an especially careful inspection, but realistically, our 45 minute wait would have been several times as long if even a fraction of the vehicles crossing the border were subject to much more scrutiny than that. Border guards and ID checks and inane questions ("did you pack your own bags?") and tracking down the forgetful owners of unidentified parcels in the shape of guitar cases do little if anything to increase actual security. But they sure make us feel safer, and I guess that's the important thing.




Hey Rod...glad you had a good trip...just a note ...being a frequent border flyer myself, by the time you get to the border they already have all the info they need on you by your license plate...when you came , where your from, who supposedly should be in the car, and ...have you ever brought a bomb across the bordr in the shape of a guitar...:)
Checking ID could (well, theoretically) prevent an attack, through several mechanisms: 1) Watchlists (incomplete, but they do exist) b) Inconsistancies in fake ID's, which are fairly easy to spot (Also, side note: This is one of the reasons the NYPD is hot on fake ID purveyors. See "Defending the city" in a recent New Yorker mag.) and 3) Asking someone for ID is a chance to get some face time with them to see if they sweat, twitch, run etc. This is one of El Al's (Israeli Airline's) signature tactics in counterterrorism. They claim there is no substitute for a person asking questions.
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