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Why I Will Never Again Complain About TSA

8 July 2008

It goes without saying that in Israel, security is something approaching a national obsession.  The rules about this go far beyond the actual borders of the country, too.  One of my friends here happened to fly El Al—consistently rated the world’s most secure airline, which is comforting since it also holds the distinction as the world’s most frequently targeted airline as well—and from the sound of things, it was quite the experience.  At check-in, she was pulled out the line and questioned for an hour by El Al Security (they have their own ex-military security at every airport with an El Al counter), asking for documentation about exactly what she would be doing in Israel, background checks, the whole nine yards.  Every plane also has armed guards posted at the cockpit door, in addition to the publicly acknowledged fact that every international flight has at least four armed plainclothes agents somewhere among the passengers.  When my friend got to Jerusalem, she discovered that her bag had been opened—not by TSA, but by El Al.  That’s right, they run the bags a second time through their own x-ray machines.  As she discovered, her laptop was missing, and was delivered a day later with the explanation that the airline couldn’t figure out what it was on the x-ray, and so pulled it out and sent it on the next flight.  On my Swiss Airlines flight, I also noticed that when we reached one hour to our scheduled landing time, the video screens would display speed, altitude, ETA, etc—but no maps of our current location, lest someone base a plot around being in a populated area.

 

What’s really incredible, though, is the security that is in place once one actually gets in country.  I’m told that this has increasingly become the norm over the past several years, but it’s virtually impossible to enter any building in the New City without going through a security check.  The next time you happen to go into a Walgreens, or any local supermarket, imagine what it would be like to have all of your bags searched, and occasionally be wanded and/or patted down by a security guard, and you have some approximation of what the simplest of errands is like here.  After a while, you no longer have to think about it realize that the glances you get from guards when you’re carrying no bag at all are not, in fact, them checking you out.  And God help you if you happen to forget a student ID… 

 

There’s another interesting element to the security culture here, though, beyond metal dectectors.  Not two hours of the plane, when I arrived in Jerusalem to register for the program, I attempted to go through the campus’ main security gate with my gigantic duffle bag containing a hiking back pack.  The number of nervous looks I received—especially since I didn’t have an ID yet—was really astonishing, although perhaps more so given my jet-lagged state.  As the guards went through my bags pretty thoroughly, one of them asked me in a thick Israeli accent: “Weep On?”  I couldn’t understand her, until she made a stabbing motion with her fist, and I got it—she was asking me if I had a weapon.  My intuition suggested that this was not the moment to respond “If I did, why on earth would I tell you about it?”

 

As it turns out, though, had I been Israeli (which, as should have been obvious, I was not) that would not have been an unreasonable question to ask.  The threat of terrorism is so omnipresent here that the government subscribes to the idea that a well-armed populace is a safer populace, a theory that is easily put into practice by virtue of the compulsory military service laws.  IDF personnel who on leave or reservists are encouraged to carry weapons around pretty much whenever they feel like it.  On my first night in Jerusalem then, during an outing to a local shopping mall to buy necessities, I was started to see a couple of teenage girls strolling out of the Israeli equivalent of Victoria’s Secret, chatting eagerly, with M-16s over their shoulders.  I still jump every time I happen to run into someone, going about normal teenager-esque things with an assault weapon dangling behind their backs.  By all accounts, for all of its horrifying collateral damage the security fence has succeeded in bringing life in Jerusalem back to something approaching safety and normalcy.  Still, it’s nothing short of heartbreaking that measures of this sort qualify as normal in a place like Israel.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Edmund permalink
    8 July 2008 10:20 pm

    Sounds like you had an easy time going through security. Consider yourself lucky, read this account (http://stolendays.wordpress.com/stolen-days-in-israel/) of an American Citizen being held for days at Ben Gurion Airport.

    Last I checked she (?) was submitting a complaint to her local elected officials about what had happened.

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