Monday, January 24, 2011

Moscow Means Air Travelers Face Years of High Alert

The latest terrorist outrage against travel and transit came today at Moscow's primary international airport, Domodedovo International, when an apparent suicide bomber killed at least 31 people and wounded many more by detonating an explosion at an international arrivals area outside the airport security perimeter. The toll is still rising.

This lethal violence against the global economy, the right of people to travel and freedom from fear is getting round-the-clock and round-the-planet media coverage, as it should. In today's New York Times (, one of the more salient points came in the paper's lead article, all the way at the bottom, where salient points often appear:

"Monday's explosion in Moscow pointed to the continuing fascination with air travel for militants, as well as the difficulty of carrying out an attack aboard a jet, said Stephen A. Baker, a former official with the Department of Homeland Security. 'They'd like to be bombing planes and they can't, so they're bombing airports,' he said, adding that the attack 'validates the focus that the U.S. has had on security at airports.' ''

I am not so sanguine about terrorists' inability to weaponize aircraft, either in the passenger cabin or in the cargo hold. But one thing's for sure: Moscow means that air travelers will continue to face years of high alert, both in the air and at the airport. That's why travelers who complain about long waits at security checkpoints and screeners who are sometimes intransient and uncomprehending, will have to put up with the inconvenience. Being dead would be really inconvenient.

What many of us want to see is smarter security, including traveler profiling based on a number of criteria, such as behavior at the airport, the nature of the traveler's documentation, tell-tale signs such as one-way tickets purchased with cash by people with little or no luggage, intelligent watchlists, careful screening of ground personnel and, yes, ethnicity, nationality and religious affliation of travelers.

The latter cannot be the only criteria; that would be subjecting entire populations to collective guilt - something jihadists and other terrorists do when they attack civilian populations in Moscow, New York, Washington, Madrid, Mumbai or London.

U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein drew flak from U.S. civil libertarians in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States by 19 men from the Middle East when she said "We aren't looking for 19 blond Norwegians'' as part of our attempts to prevent future attacks. But while her remark may have been overly broad, she wasn't wrong to direct attention to groups of militants who have publically sworn to attack targets in the U.S. and elsewhere. Ethnicity, nationality and religion must be included and carefully combined with other criteria in a full menu of security measures.

The initial and perhaps reflexive response to Monday's airport bombing by Russian authorities is blaming the attack on Chechen separatists, most of whom are Muslims, or ultra-nationalists in the North Caucasus area. Russia, it should be noted, is hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, in the country's restive south, which will attract tens of thousands of Russian and international travelers.

Separatists have carried out terror attacks in Russia before. This may or may not prove to be the case this time. Either way, we are, sadly, in for much more tension in travel, in Russia and around the world. Smarter security would help us deal with with this on-going travail.

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