A STORY FROM A CITY ON ALERT
BY: RACHEL MARSDEN
Immediately prior to boarding a plane from Phoenix, Arizona, to Washington, DC, last week, I was pulled aside at the gate by airport security. The guard informed me that I had been randomly flagged by the computer system to undergo a full security check that would involve a search of my carry-on bag, as well as a wand scan of my running shoes and my entire body. The dark-skinned man behind me who was waiting to undergo the same kind of search looked rather annoyed, to say the least. He rolled his eyes and sighed as he stared anxiously at his watch. He turns to me and says, “God, this is the second %^&# time I’ve had to go though this on the same damn trip! I really don’t know what the hell the big problem is!”
Hey buddy, does the date September 11th ring any bells? Personally, I was thrilled to see airport security visibly cranking it up a few notches. Merely knowing that one could be subject to a thorough search, at any time, would be a definite deterrent to any terrorist type who might feel compelled to hone his craft on innocent air travelers.
I figure a little pre-boarding inconvenience is a small price to pay for peace of mind. I couldn’t help but think that perhaps the agitated fellow behind me felt that he was being subject to racial profiling. He was middle-aged and brown-skinned—just like every single one of the terrorists involved in the September 11th attacks, and Jose Padilla (a.k.a. Abdullah al-Mujahir)—the man with links to al-Qaeda who was recently arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in connection with a plot to detonate a “dirty bomb” (a conventional bomb laced with radioactive material) in a major American city. Let’s face it--blonde-haired, blue-eyed twenty-something catholics aren’t the ones going around blowing up airplanes. If they were, I’d want all of them singled out for special security checks, too.
Civil libertarians are constantly whining about how these safety measures are an affront to one’s freedom, and represent a violation of civil rights. But what about my right to walk around Washington, DC and not have to worry about some fanatical fruitcake detonating a nuclear bomb that he was able to smuggle into the country because airline and/or border security was concerned about offending his sensibilities?
Having to take a few extra minutes to answer some questions and have your belongings and person searched hardly constitutes a violation of privacy. It’s not like anyone is being asked to undress or submit to a cavity search!
Having been in Washington for a week now, I’m all too well aware of the reality of terrorist threats. The Washington Post has announced on its front page that US government agencies have just ordered 350,000 potassium iodide pills, which are taken to protect the thyroid gland from the effects of radiation in the event of a nuclear explosion. There have also been reports that al-Qaeda operatives have plans to release nerve gas into the metro DC subway system on or about Independence Day. There’s a strong sense in this town of people being on edge, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It was when we were not on edge and vigilant that we became vulnerable—and a nightmare scenario became reality.
Given all this ominous news, the only tangible thing that has assuaged my fears since arriving in Washington is the fact that I’ve witnessed—and experienced—a heightened level of security at the airport. Granted no amount of official security measures—at airports, borders or elsewhere—can guarantee complete safety, it’s comforting to know that they’re at least doing their part.
We must remember, however, that 64 chemicals contained in common products—such as hair pomade and battery acid—can be used to make explosives. Timothy McVeigh was able to build the bomb that destroyed the Oklahoma City federal building by using ammonium nitrate—a substance that can be derived from burned wood, metal paint, and farm fertilizer. David Albright—an expert on nuclear weapons and design, and the president of the Institute for Science and International Security—says that terrorists hell-bent on mass destruction don’t necessarily need to smuggle anything into the country or steal explosives from a military base somewhere. They would simply go out to a grocery store, a pharmacy, or a medical supply store, and buy chemicals that would enable them to whip up a homemade bomb. Surely there is information out there on some kind of “terrorism for dummies” Internet site that would be of help to these do-it-yourselfers.
All this means that we still cannot rely completely on formalized security measures to protect us. That would be like running out into traffic on a busy street and believing that you’re completely and utterly protected simply because you happen to be in a marked crosswalk. We all have to do our part and look after ourselves, and each other.