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The Lesson of Domodedevo

January 28, 2011

The only surprising aspect of the suicide bombing at Moscow’s Domodedevo Airport is that it hasn’t happened before in some part of the world.

Security systems at most airports are designed to stop people blowing up planes. If X-ray machines and body scanners are necessary to prevent another 9/11, then by implication, whatever other measures airports use to prevent self-detonation at a check-in line are bound to be weaker. And the same goes for measures to avert a car bomb in the drop-off area, as the incident in Glasgow a few years back showed.

So what will our security experts come up with next? Inspections of all vehicles coming within 500 meters of the terminal? Scanners and pat-downs at the front entrance of the terminal? Maybe, but not without vastly increasing the time and cost of travel.

When I worked in civil aviation, the mantra of airport and air traffic control authorities was “safe and expeditious travel”. Today, you could argue that air travel can either be safe or expeditious – but not both. And even if you invested billions in security improvements at the world’s airports, would that stop the suicide bombers? Of course not. They have a huge choice of high-profile targets.

Wealthy countries have alert systems that trigger responses to perceived levels of threat. In the UK, during the IRA bombing campaign of the 1970s, there were times when your bag would be searched every time you entered a large public auditorium. Once a few months had passed after the latest bombing, the measure would be quietly dropped. The trouble was, as soon as the authorities deemed that the worst was over, bang – another bombing.

Things are not much different today, except that alert levels are permanently high. We occasionally see minor relaxations of the most stringent measures, such as those relating to bringing liquids into aircraft, yet we read in the media about Steven Greenoe, a businessman who is alleged to have smuggled more than 80 handguns into the UK via checked baggage on transatlantic flights.

The lesson of Domodedevo is that there is no section of humanity – privileged or not – that is immune to mortal danger. All we can do is to mitigate risk. In the case of terrorism, we can work to remove the motivation for terrorist acts, we can boost national security measures and systems, and we can increase international cooperation to avert imminent threats.

Although the wealthy and the powerful can take measures unavailable to the rest of us, even they cannot guarantee their safety, as John F Kennedy, Rafik Hariri and Benazir Bhutto discovered to their cost.

Those of us who can’t afford to live in fortresses, fly in private jets and surround ourselves with armed bodyguards need to remind ourselves of the common human condition – life is dangerous, and always was. In previous centuries, the dangers were early death through plague, starvation, warfare and civil disorder. Those dangers are still with us, though in many parts of the world, the threat of infectious disease has taken second place to natural disaster, environmental catastrophes and terrorism.

In earlier times when the average life expectancy was far shorter than it is today, there was a stoic acceptance that living to a ripe old age was a matter of luck rather than design – or the will of God rather than the acts of man.

Rather than live our lives consumed by fear, perhaps we should regain the stoicism of previous generations, mourn the victims of life’s capriciousness, and count each day as a blessing. No amount of knowledge, science or technology will ever change the basic human condition.

We should not stop striving for a better world. But we should remember three things. Life is short. It’s dangerous. And whether we rise above the danger to find happiness is down to us.

From → History, Politics, Social

  1. ulag permalink

    Whats the link between Al Qaeda, Adam Smith and the current Arab revolutions? Read it here.

    • Thanks for your comment Ulag – an interesting piece. I’ve left a comment on your blog.

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