Frankly, I think security measures at certain international airports have reached ridiculous if not sometimes embarrassing proportions. Though not a very ‘frequent flyer’, I must say things have changed dramatically since the last time I travelled long distance. Recently I travelled to Washington DC via the dreaded Dakar route. The usual put-your-hand-luggage-through-the-scan-device-and-take-out-your-laptop was in order. So was the business of removing jewellery, belts and metal buckled shoes, and more. I stood in a long snaking ‘women only’ line at OR Tambo wondering what the hold-up was until I was about 10 people away from going past the scan myself. There was a variety of interesting new security measures. People were not only taking off shoes, belts and jewellery – they were also taking off jackets in that biting cold, then handing themselves over to a burly female guard who would then conduct a pat-down similar to what I’ve seen ‘cops’ do in the movies. All out in the open. I mechanically went through the process, trying not to flinch at the thought of being groped and patted by those yellow-gloved hands. Next, a full body scan where you had to look directly ahead, legs apart and hands above your head. In about 5 seconds, the Rapid Scan 1000 device – informally known as the ‘backscatter’ – would then screen you for any hidden metallic and other potentially dangerous objects. Those in the know say this is the in-thing for all US bound travellers nowadays.
Then there were the smug police and other security personnel that seemed to intently observe travellers; some a little more than others – as they walked up and down the long queues. I heard they are called ‘behaviour detection officers’. Their open stares were peeled to pick out anything in the least suspicious-looking – like someone sweating with the aircon on perhaps.
The brief stopover in Dakar was also colourful. Security men and women methodically searched over and under, probed and almost tore apart all the seats that had been vacated by passengers whose final destination was Senegal. A little later, everyone was asked to take possession of their hand luggage. This would enable them to quickly spot any unattended bag and remove it in case it was a bomb or something. For a moment there was an unclaimed bag in one of the overhead lockers, which of course caused a bit of a flurry including the calling in of what looked like a stand-by bomb squad. It later emerged that the bag belonged to an elderly Russian who neither spoke nor understood English, and therefore had not understood the instruction to take possession of his bag.
Many hours later, we touched down at Dulles Airport. As I waited for the baggage to arrive, an announcement was repeated at almost 10 minute intervals warning travellers never to leave their bags unattended as they risked being ‘removed’ by the security detail with a great chance of them getting damaged in the process. I later discovered that bomb threats are a common, almost every day thing in Washington. On one of the days our host was very late for a conference because she had had to go back to her house and fetch her car after there had been a bomb threat at one of the subway stations.
On my way back to Zimbabwe this week, I went through the now familiar processes. As we stood in the long queues, I could see all the frustrated and annoyed looks of travellers, some of whom really risked missing connecting flights. Security seemed to be taking a lot longer than usual.
Later I reflected to myself, what kind of life is this when it is punctuated by so much fear?
Understandably, security is meant to protect us innocent civilians, but for a country to be constantly looking over its shoulder for fear of being attacked is indeed a sad way of life. They say in Shona kuvhunduka chati kwatara hunge uine katurikwa, loosely translated to mean that he who is uncharacteristically always jumpy knows what he is guilty of.
I have friends who firmly believe the Americans brought this upon themselves, bullying and sticking their nose into other people’s business; attempting to run the world. So many have a bone to chew with them including Iraqis, Afgans, Pakistanis, Somali’s and now Libyans. But more attacks certainly can be anticipated now that Bin Laden has been neutralised. I cannot help but recall the words of one Somali in Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down, a harrowing and somewhat fictionalised account of the happenings of October 3rd, 1993 in Mogadishu when a US Delta Force military raid went terribly wrong resulting in the gruesome deaths of 18 soldiers. He said: “Didn’t the Americans realise that for every leader they arrested, there were dozens of brothers, cousins, sons and nephews to take his place? … They were trying to take down a clan, the most ancient and efficient social organization known to man.”
The question is; how long can a country keep this up? Obviously whomever it is they are afraid of, would attack when least expected and wouldn’t be so stupid as to attempt passing through all that security strapped with bombs?
But I guess nothing can be left to chance.