What happens when a metal detector breaks down at an airport? In one African airport (the country will go unnamed) I passed through a few years back, the answer was simple: everyone got patted down, repeatedly. Between entering the airport and taking my seat on the plane, I think I was patted down half a dozen times. At no point did I take off my boots or hat. It was like nobody even considered the possibility I was carrying a boot knife – or even a small handgun.
Getting on a plane without being properly check for weapons might seem shocking, but it’s just one of many security oversights I’ve seen while travelling. As a former security officer, this kind of thing always makes me wince.
Just a few weeks ago I was visiting an embassy, and met another security team that didn’t seem to understand what the deal is with metal detectors. Before entering the embassy offices, a group of us were herded into a small room. In the centre of the room was a metal detector. There wasn’t much space, so some of us were standing in front of the detector, some behind it, and others right in the middle. I found myself standing on the far side of the room, near the passage to the embassy offices. Basically, I was already in what should have been a clean area, but I hadn’t walked through the detector. After a few moments, we were given a short speech about the embassy’s super secure protocol, before being asked to hand in our mobile phones. Then the ole’ metal detector was fired up, and we filed through one by one. For me, this meant circumnavigating around the metal detector, then passing back through it. I was tempted to jokingly ask which side of the metal detector I should leave my machete on, but the security guards looked like they were taking the whole ritual quite seriously.
I’ve entered banks with zero tolerance policies on text messaging on mobile phones, but sending emails on tablets is perfectly acceptable. I’ve entered buildings where backpacks are routinely searched, but handbags are never opened. At another business, I remember seeing a security guard being ordered to always stand on the exact same spot, right in front of an elevator. Apparently, the idea was that the first thing any malicious visitor would see when the elevator doors opened would be a guard standing at attention. No, you don’t get any points for figuring out why this arrangement was a terrible idea for a guard who may have to confront an armed attacker.
It’s not just single buildings, but entire countries with terrible security. Once on a border crossing, I was removed from an international bus for a random bag search. I wasn’t surprised, as this particular crossing was a notorious smuggling route. As I later discovered, the bag searches weren’t really that random. Only men would get searched. It was like the border guards thought only men were capable of stuffing their backpacks full of cocaine. At another airport in central Asia, I got off an international flight and left the building without my visa even being checked. At another border crossing, a friend of mine did have their visa inspected. The border guard appeared to spend a solid 5 minutes checking and double checking every minute detail on the visa stamp. Eventually, my friend glanced over the guard’s shoulder, and saw he was reading the passport upside down.
Some of this can be dismissed as people just sucking at their jobs, or by recognising security for what it is: 90 percent deterrence. Almost all security relies entirely on creating the illusion of force to rattle potential wrong-doers and provide comfort to everyone else. This approach to security might sound cynical, but much of the time it’s actually more effective than you’d think.
However, in much of the world, security is something very different to deterrence – it’s luxury. In many parts of South America, security culture is a huge deal. In Ecuador, up-market apartments will always have a 24 hour security guard. This guard will likely have a Kevlar vest and revolver, but they won’t have something useful like a radio, alarm system or sometimes even a panic button. But that’s not the point. The guard is there for the same reason as the marble tiles and faux gold ornaments in the lobby. Tenants pay for apartments with guards so they can show their friends how rich they are, not so they can be safer. Demand of guards is so high, there is an entire class of people who spend most of their working lives standing outside doorways, staring at passerbys. The average monthly wages for these guards tends to hover between US$300-400 a month for 6-7 days a week of 12 hour shifts. Unlike security guards in (my home country) Australia who often have plenty of minor tasks to keep themselves occupied, guards in Ecuador are rarely expected to do anything more than tuck their shirts in. No skills are being honed, and no recognition of any kind is achieved. The long hours mean it’s impossible to study or any other activity that could lead to a better life. It’s an endless expanse of empty hours day after day, year after year – and it leads nowhere. This would make some sense if these people were performing a valuable service to keep people safe, but so many of them aren’t. They live to provide a meaningless luxury to the rich, and nothing more.