When I’m overseas, even in developed countries, my senses are on higher alert than when I’m in New Zealand. Partly that’s because I don’t know what I don’t know about what’s happening around me, and partly it’s because all these countries have threats that we simply don’t have here.
Our trip included 13 different airports, if you don’t include the four remote airstrips in Tanzania where the pilot is also check-in, luggage wrangler and air steward.
So we had a chance to experience many different approaches to airport security. The worst – and I won’t name it so that I’m not sharing the news with the bad guys – was pure nonsense. It had many of the visual elements of proper security, such as x-ray machines and people looking at boarding passes, but nothing connected up. Suffice to say that you could not only drive a bus through the system, I reckon the Ninth Airborne could saunter through without much more trouble than being asked to dump their water bottles.
That sort of bollocks gives me the heebie-jeebies. It means that I have to be on extra alert, just watching, watching, watching.
At the other end of the scale is the totally meaningless security check. Top of the pops is Melbourne airport where our Emirates plane touched down en route from Dubai to Auckland. All the Auckland-bound passengers had to de-plane, queue up for twenty minutes, and go through security before going into the departure lounge so that we could re-board the same plane. Exactly how we were supposed to have acquired contraband at 33,000 feet is beyond me. Welcome to Australia, cobber.
In the middle of all of our trip, of course, was the Sydney café siege, Charlie Hebdo, and ISIS, and Boko Haram, and ebola. The threats are real enough, but I’m left wondering about the choices we make about dealing with them.
Risk is Probability X Consequence. Something with a low probability but big effect is the same risk as a high probability but small effect.
That gives you a raw risk assessment, and then you figure out the costs of different options for managing the risk by reducing either the probability or consequence.
Airport security is about reducing the probability of, say, snakes on planes.
Buying car insurance is about addressing the consequences side of the equation.
Sometimes we decide not to do anything about a particular risk, such as when I only buy third-party insurance for a cheap car. I can wear the financial impact of losing my car, but I’m still covered for the cost of the Porsche I collided with.
Here’s my point: when have we had the grown-up discussion about how to deal with the terrorist risk (Probability X Consequence)?
Politicians can feel pressure to be seen to do something, even if it has no actual impact on the bad guys. The cost of such cosmetics is borne not just by taxpayers and travellers, but also all the ordinary citizens whose daily lives are slowed down and who are made to live with an elevated sense of fear. I’m looking at you, Melbourne airport.
Degrading and ultimately defeating the terrorists is a complex, expensive and long-term job. It’s about doing lots of things simultaneously. Partly it’s about reducing the sources of grievance and despair (poverty, youth unemployment, racism, failing states, cynical old men spouting bullshit theology); it’s about going after their bases and finances; and it’s about solid (not nonsense) security that makes it actually harder to commit an outrage.
And – and this point often gets lost in the mix – it’s about resilience. If you accept that it is impossible to prevent every single outrage, you start preparing for how to carry on when shit happens.
That was, I think, the most impressive part of the response by the French crowds to the Paris murders: a big fat raspberry to the terrorists saying “We will not be bullied, we will not be cowed.”
We need to be able to take every single hit they throw at us, and stay standing, and stare them down rather than lash out indiscriminately. Because the one thing they want to achieve is to throw us off our game. To force us to live differently.
The irony is that I was composing all these fine words in my head as a way of diverting my stomach during the riskiest part of our trip: the flights in a small Cessna out of rough airstrips in the Tanzanian wild. I’d paid well for the privilege of such shennaigans, and put my beloved biological future alongside me, and I was strapped in the back fluttering at every sneeze of turbulence. (And holding the sick bags for the LittleDavys’ breakfasts.)
That’s the Global Middle Class for you: we’ll get all het up about the very low probability terrorism risk, and then put our children on a Vomit Comet for a losing fight against gravity.