The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Sunday, July 02, 2006


© Duncan Graham 2006

Here’s a slice of good news to dunk in your breakfast coffee this Sunday morn: Common sense may be returning in matters of public security.

Passengers on Garuda international flights are now trusted to eat their baked omelette using a steel knife.

A real 17 cm long knife with a serrated blade and unbendable. (I tried.) The sort which vanished from the plastic trays of plastic food after terrorists armed with box cutters hijacked four airliners in the US.

Following the 2001 outrage any likely offensive weapon was banned from the cabin. Passengers’ bags were X rayed and every sharp confiscated. Women’s nails are now rotten and ragged because thousands of files, clippers and other lethal aids to beauty have been filched from their owners’ purses.

The security industry exploded (sorry, expanded exponentially). Everyone wanted their own metal detector.

A five-star hotel manager in Surabaya told me he found his shiny new walk-through machine an embarrassment. It was working too efficiently and revealing the concealed handguns worn by many top business gents.

The manager sought police help; his employees were loath to try and seize the weapons as a man will not willingly divorce his pistol. Even if successful how could untrained staff handle and store the guns?

The police advice? Ignore the weapons as most would be licensed. That made everyone feel much safer.

Meanwhile more civilised guests with solid wristwatches, heavy leather belts and a pocket full of loose change were being frisked.

Dangerous guys indeed: unable to open fire they could throw coins in your face, whip off their belts, thrash you with buckle or karate chop you with the watch wristband. Be ever alert.

Security advisors ransacked their brains to out-think the terrorists and close off the opportunities.

National security senior fellow Dr Stephen Flynn put the following scenario to a US Senate subcommittee earlier this year:

The low-paid driver of a container truck in Surabaya is persuaded to back his vehicle into a warehouse while on his way to Tanjung Perak, East Java’s major shipping port.

The container has been loaded with shoes destined for the US. The manufacturer has been certified safe and the cargo carefully sealed by authorised inspectors.

But the door hinges are prized off by the smart terrorists who slip a dirty radioactive bomb amongst the footwear. The bomb is inside a lead-lined box so escapes detection by the container terminal’s X-ray machine.

The container goes from Surabaya to Jakarta and Hong Kong - and eventually to Chicago. The doors are opened and …

The hyper-imaginative Dr Flynn testified this was “the terrorist scenario that most keeps me awake at night.”

What keeps me awake is that these over-paid experts think Surabaya a good spot for bomb transfers. Don’t they know the locals are so nosey such an operation could never go unnoticed? They’d all want a pair of sneakers and the container would be gutted in a trice.

The difficulty of making the world absolutely safe from the crazed and devious was well illustrated by Australian Immigration Minister Amanda Vanstone.

She told a Rotary meeting in Australia that she’d cynically asked Prime Minister John Howard if pencils should be banned from aircraft because their sharpened points could be used to stab crew in the eyes.

In a rare moment of candour (she didn’t know there was a journalist in the audience) Vanstone also admitted that many government decisions were designed to make the public think something effective was being done about security when total safeguards were impossible.

It’s clear we’re all starting to relax – and let’s hope that’s OK. Guards at police HQ in Surabaya are no longer interested in pushing mirrors under cars’ skirts, while shopping centre security men would rather chat than wand bags.

So congratulations to Garuda for letting us use real cutlery. Now the airline needs to do something about another potential weapon.

The stale bun I was served last week was a cricket ball in disguise - so hard I could have lobbed it down the aisle and knocked out the purser. This should be drawn to Dr Flynn’s attention and raised at the next US Senate sub-committee. Along with Minister Vanstone’s pencil plot.

(First published in The Sunday Post 2 July 06)

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