I recently had the luck to travel to Europe for a few weeks of backpacking. But this column isn’t about the joys of finding your way around Antwerp with the flu or exploring Celtic ruins in Germany: It’s about the sad state of airport security along the way.
Even with a gap of more than two years between Sept. 11, 2001, and us, Europeans have yet to learn the consequences of shabby airport security. The difference between New York’s JFK Airport and the other various airports I traveled through are proof of it.
Security at JFK would make Fort Knox proud. My boots were unlaced and examined; bags were looked through repeatedly; documents were given the quadruple lookover by INS. It might even be too impressive of a security apparatus; security concerns led to JFK closing all mailboxes and post offices at the airport. My letter to Philadelphia, just 110 miles from the airport, had to be mailed all the way from London.
Cross the Atlantic and it becomes a different story. For starters, Europeans have embraced airline culture to a degree unimaginable here: low-cost carriers like Ryanair and Easyjet offer Greyhound-like fares, to the point where a trip from London to Brussels only costs $16 after taxes or a flight from Berlin to Cadiz, Spain a staggering $22.
Even discount airlines and the airports that serve them should be expected to have something resembling security. Sadly enough, they do not.
I will be the first to admit that I am not the most careful packer. I didn’t notice my bag had shaving razors in them or a toenail clipper, both hardly weapons but neither things any airline would want above them in a post-box cutter world.
Although I was asked verbally by the fine folks at London’s Stansted Airport if I was carrying any knives or weapons in my bag, doubtlessly to stop the next wave of ethically coherent suicide bombers, both razors and clipper made it through security.
The toenail clipper? Though it’s blade is hardly sharper to do anything more than maybe slice half an inch through before dulling to uselessness, it is also made from the exact same metal many cheaper knives are. If that could make it through a metal detector, chances are that something that could inflict actual harm might very well make it someday too.
Then there was the story of the boot. Somewhere along the line of the trip, the sole of one of my boots started falling off to the point where it could be heard from fifteen feet away. Two years ago, London’s Heathrow airport had an incident with an individual named Richard Reid who boarded a jet with a shoe stuffed with plastic explosives.
Of all people, I would expect the security of Heathrow to take interest in a boot with an obviously detached sole, one that could easily have had contraband shoved into the empty space, one that for all intents and purposes could have stored anything from a dime bag to a razor blade to a wad of semtex comfortably in the gap between sole and heel.
But security took no interest in this blonde haired, blue eyed, pierced American in jeans and a Motorhead shirt who looked like his worst political sin might be owning a few Noam Chomsky books.
Maybe it was because of that, maybe it was because of simple negligence, but it still doesen’t mean I can sleep any easier. I am New York born and bred – I never want to see a repeat of September 11th again. But the sorry state of security in Europe’s airports means the risk of it is all too possible.
Neal Ungerleider can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.