Security in America: An Asian Perspective


It is now more than a year since that black day in New York when we were taught yet again that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. And yet it seems that the lesson was but forced into one ear that morning and was thrown out the other after the first few months of well-intentioned resolve to learn from it.


My wife and I spent a few days in D.C., managing a little time in most of the museums we had targeted. Notice the word Ďtargetedí Ė I did not think of that word; it came to mind automatically. That was because, except for the Holocaust Museum, nowhere else were we or our belongings searched in a way that would have indicated that this nation was at war or that the museum in question housed some of mankindís most priceless and irreplaceable works. The security guys have what looked like a little stick with which they ruffle through your bags as they chat with each other. There is another thing they do: if you do not have a bag, they beseech you not to stand in the security line.


If this is security, I might as well start my own security company. This is easy stuff.


Easy for me. Easier for the madmen of the world.


I have forever been an ardent admirer of the American peopleís attitude to their government. They always demand so much from their elected officials, and together with an aggressive media, they always seem to be snapping at their tails. And yet, at times such as these, I wonder if the American public is expecting too much. They want convenience. They want personal freedom. And they want to be secure too. Sadly, a lot of that is mutually exclusive.


I remember all those pompous media commentators and their programs, just a month or two after September 11 last year, screaming at the inefficiency of the airport personnel who had made them wait for more than twelve minutes to check in. Itís a mess, they said repeatedly, shaking their heads in incredulous exasperation. Yeah, I wanted to tell them, we just lost 3000 lives in the worst ever terror attack perpetrated on the human race, not by punks who mug people in dark alleys but by highly organized and trained madmen, who think nothing of killing thousands of innocent men, women and children.Yeah, it will be a mess and if you canít stand in line for a few hours, please take a walk to your destination. Or go shake your head at the madmen.


Americans are just beginning to see the kind of security that most Asian countries have had to impose for years now. There, security is considered a sensible necessity in a violent and irrational world and borne with practiced equanimity. Here, the slight inconvenience is already being considered a hardship and an attack on personal freedom. There, unobtrusive security is considered ineffective. Like justice, security has to be seen, to be a deterrent. Its efficacy is directly proportional to its nuisance value.


Here, the government, stuck halfway between ensuring security and avoiding the displeasure of its subjects, is willing to risk providing only half the solution. So a magnificent museum and a thousand lives can do without the hardship of an X-ray machine and a physical search. And this is a country where the right to possess a gun is considered fundamental by many.


I would have expected Washington, capital city of the United States, and indeed the world, to be bristling with uniforms. Visible security is always reassuring. But it looks as if the constant clamor for less inconvenience has drowned out the voice of a changing reality.


Todayís reality is vastly different from the one America faced in Vietnam and Korea and even in the Cold War. That enemy had a name, a face and geography to place both in. Todayís enemy is global yet faceless. He is unscrupulous; he will not engage in honorable battle and will not hesitate to strike at your back. If he cannot make you step on a landmine, he will kill you with pinpricks.


In all the four flights that I took, security was tight and we were spared the small stick treatment. All my flights were on time too. It seems to me that America has securely locked up her skies.


As I write this, I watch television. A couple has been arrested carrying a horde of guns in a car. Guess where. Two miles from the White House.


Unfortunately, disaster neednít always come from the sky.