I bought an ulu in Alaska a couple of years ago. It's a sharp pocket knife with which Sarah Palin could efficiently skin a caribou or a terrorist cut the throat of a recalcitrant air steward. On return from a recent trip to Dublin, I found it nestling forgotten at the bottom of my handbag, having been undetected by both Heathrow or Dublin X-ray machines.
The people who watch the screens have a boring, repetitive job, and even if potentially dangerous items show up, they often get through. Security in airports is a con. Except in Israel, of which more later.
In the past 18 months or so I've been on 70 or more planes and been checked by security in around a dozen airports in Europe and the US. Mostly, what goes on is a complete waste of time. The explosive powder concealed in the underpants of the Nigerian wannabe bomber was undetectable by X-ray, as would have been the syringe with the nasty liquid. (No one has ever spotted the adrenaline syringe I carry to ward off anaphylactic shock from wasp-stings.)
The body-scanners that are now about to be brought in at enormous expense will be useless against the latest cutting-edge Islamist initiative -- what Americans are delicately calling the butt-bomb. It's a winner, this. While there's the disadvantage that if you trigger it in situ, your body will take the main force of the blast, all you have to do is pop into the loo, extract the PTN (Pentaerythritol tetranitrate) from your rectum and set it off when you get back to your seat more efficiently than did young Mr Abdulmutallab. Then, hey presto, plenty of dead people will be raining down on the city of your choice.
We have to get real. And that means for a start accepting dogs, profiling, behavioural identification and -- crucially -- operational independence.
As the Slovakian security people have demonstrated dramatically, dogs are as good at sniffing out plastic explosives as they are at spotting drugs. The unfortunate Stefan Gonda, arrested by gardai for unwittingly carrying the RDX (Research Department Explosives -- as used successfully in August 2004 by two female Chechens on
two Russian aircraft) planted on several passengers by Slovak police testing out their sniffer dogs, did not actually surmount the canine barrier. The dogs had 100 per cent success, but the handler who had put two samples of an explosive into Gonda's bag forgot to take out the second when the dog found the first. So let's have the dogs checking people and baggage as they arrive at the airport so no-one can saunter into security with his knapsack, blow up hundreds of queueing passengers and wreck the airport.
Now, profiling. The civil liberties people scream about the wickedness of paying special attention to particular ethnic, religious or age groups. Rubbish. These days, apart from the odd Tamil Tiger, suicide bombers are Muslim, the vast majority are of Asian background, almost all are under 30 and most are still male. Keep security minimal for the rest of us and focus on the core group. Women won't put too much strain on the system: so far, their bombers wear enveloping Islamic dress.
Knife crime is going down in London because police have finally decided to ignore hand-wringing liberals and search black kids, who are the main perpetrators and victims. Very few parents complain: they don't want their kids to murder or die. Similarly, it was only the malcontents and republican activists who whinged when, during the heyday of the Provos, the Irish were singled out for security checks.
I'm not suggesting that everyone within the core group should be subjected to specially intimate security checks. This is where behavioural identification comes in. The Israelis, who need and have the best security system in the world, are adept at interpreting body language: suicide bombers are mostly tyros and their nervousness shows. If the sweaty ones have to be strip-searched or go home -- tough.
Above all, while airport police should be subject to the law, they should be free of political interference. Politically correct politicians from the UK to Canada have caved in to pressure from Muslims and agreed that the devout should not have an unclean animal near their sacred person. They have rejected profiling as racist and discriminatory and therefore have subjected us all to hours of pointless misery. (I've had the experience in America of being taken out of a queue boarding the aircraft to be re-searched so as to be a middle-aged, white, female counterpoint to the searching of a dodgy-looking young man in full Islamic gear.) Behavioural identification techniques will be swamped if its practitioners are expected to view every passenger as an equal threat.
Lay off, politicians. Stop wasting our money and let the cops do their job.