As a very frequent traveler, one of the things that I find incredibly annoying is airport security. Though you may initially think I’m picking on the Philippines before reading this, I am not… In fact I believe that the Philippines has hit on one critical aspect of airport security that our most benevolent masters and unquestioned rulers in the United States (Papers, please!) have missed. In fact, I’m fairly certain, nearly 100%, that there will be comments to this article written along the lines of “Well, if it just keeps one person safe!” or “They crashed those planes, 9/11, never forget!” or the old jewel “If you have nothing to hide, then what’s the big deal?”. The big deal is an issue of waste. The big deal is an issue of real security, rather than theater. The big deal is an issue of control… by those holding the guns. The big deal is that a giant system of politics as usual has developed and is getting bigger every day.
Since moving to the Philippines, I have probably been in and out of NAIA at least 200 times. Easily that amount. I have traveled to just about every corner of the world since then, and seen security that ranges from truly draconian (Colombia, USA, UK) to highly professional (Singapore, Canada, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Australia, New Zealand) to idiotic and asinine (Germany, India, USA, UK) to begging the question “What security?” (Indonesia, Yemen). Therefore, I speak from experience as a passenger who can tell the difference, no matter how much those in charge refuse to acknowledge due to “National Security”. I also believe that very little that is being done does much at all to keep you safe.
Case in point. The TSA was established in the United States, in theory, to professionalize airport security and eliminate the lack of unified standards between agencies. Has it done that? I say, no, in no way, shape or form. In 2002, I was leaving Ft. Lauderdale (FLL) going, I think, to Chicago. I was told (barked at) by a “professional” TSA screener to remove my wallet (nothing metallic) and put it on the belt. I did so without saying anything. I go through the metal detector, get to the other side of the belt and reach for my wallet. I was screamed at by the “professional”, “Don’t touch that! It’s sterile!” He then proceeded to lift $20 out of my wallet and place it into his pocket. I said, very irritated, “Who’s screening the screeners? I saw what you just did?” He then stated, “Are you saying I stole?” I said, “YES!” I was then threatened with arrest by the Ft. Lauderdale police if I didn’t shut my mouth, and told, “If you have a complaint, fill in this form”. I said, “Fine, do whatever the **** it is that you do!”. I was then informed that it is a felony to say “****” in a “sterile” area. The police were called over, and I was taken to a room off the side, searched, and questioned for thirty minutes. My protests about their thieving “professional” were ignored, and I was informed that I would be arrested if I said anything else. No choice as to course of action. I was flying for work.
Now, you could make the “One bad apple” argument. Or, that I should have known better than to mouth off. However, how many people would keep their cool in the face of blatant thieving, in front of your eyes. What would you do? Politely ask for a complaint form? Say, “Well gee, they’re keeping us safe!”? I don’t think so. Since that time, I tend not to believe what I am told.
Anyone who has recently traveled in the US (or even worse, the UK) knows the drill: Get into an interminable queue, have your documents checked by someone who couldn’t spot a fake ID any better than your average 7-11 clerk. Get screamed at to remove your shoes. Get screamed at to keep you OWN boarding pass in YOUR hand. Get screamed at to remove your laptop. Get screamed at to keep your ID out. Get screamed at ad infinitum. Wait while they pull aside grandma to make absolutely certain that it was her pacemaker setting off the alarm. Get questioned about anything “unusual” in your belongings. Seems that in the United States, carrying cash can get you questioned. Anything over $1,000 or so. Are they searching for terrorists? No. They are looking for drugs. They are looking for tax cheats. They are looking for an excuse to search you. All in the name of “security”.
My problem with all of this is that the potential for abuse of authority is rife, and the authority is being abused. How many of the “terrorist” incidents were prevented? Well, the public is never told, under the guise of “National Security”. Are liquids a real threat? Who really knows for certain? We are told, “Yes”, and expected to obey. Don’t obey, you don’t fly. Well, in the US, that may not be an insurmountable problem. In an island nation, what are you going to do? Swim?
Some of the most nasty-tempered security people in the world work at Heathrow. Arrive at Heathrow from the United States and you will face a queue when you transit that can easily last several hours. I vividly remember one time landing and entering a transit queue (Which in itself is idiotic, since you are coming from an area that is supposedly already “sterile”). At least 2,000 people waiting. No aircon, and people were hot, tired, cranky, and missing their connections. The Heathrow “professionals” were wandering around barking orders, and people were getting angry. I mean REALLY angry. Why? Only ONE machine working with around six more standing right next to it, unused. At least two dozen “professionals” standing around with their hands in their pockets. About two weeks later, I transited Heathrow again, and the same queue and situation. What did BAA do to address the problem? Simple. They put up signs that stated that profanity in the secure area was an offense that merits prison. The passengers are the REAL problem. Not abuse by those in charge.
I’m a believer that airport security has become CYA for the politicians. If something happens, they can then say, “Well, look at all we’ve done.” Travel and freedom of movement are essential to a free society. Controlling movement is the first step to controlling people. It is not terrorists they are after. They are after YOU, and reminding YOU that YOU are under their control. A look at the TSA website will show the number of drug busts made at airport security. What does busting someone with a joint in their pocket have to do with terrorism? I wouldn’t have as much of a problem with all of this if the various governments just told the truth and that the security actually did any good. But we are fed lies, and I don’t think it does anyone any good at all. I’m just waiting for the day when we all are forced to travel naked with no baggage.
So, after this rant, to the Philippines. NAIA is never much fun, even under the best of circumstances. However, I can say that I’ve always been treated respectfully by security here, which is saying far more than in the US or, especially, the UK. There are no idiots marching along the queues barking orders and screaming at people. Yes, some of the procedures here are nonsensical also (the thing with the shoes, a printed “e-ticket” to get to the counter), yet if you are treated with respect, the idiocy is much easier to swallow. I’ve never felt like a criminal at NAIA. I’ve never felt that anyone was going to steal from me or arrest me there. I’ve never been threatened there. This is the key. The Philippines does what needs to be done, but they do it politely. Put some dignity into the process and people won’t lose their cool.
John Miele is a Citizen of the World, having spent time in many locations around the globe. Currently, he finds himself in Manila, but travels throughout the Philippines. John joined the Live in the Philippines Web Magazine in mid-2008.