Tuesday, September 13, 2011

tuesdays in turkmenistan: security theater

To enter and leave Turkmenistan, I understandably fly through the capital city of Ashgabat. That airport is actually quite decent. Sure, there's no free Wi-Fi, but it is a nice building and a definite step up from the airport in Libreville, Gabon. Spacious terminal and gate areas, basic facilities, a couple shops, etc. I might even call it comparable to Washington-Dulles, but that's mostly an indictment about how shabby Dulles is as an airport and not a true comparison. However, it is plagued by the same problem U.S. airports now have, which is a great deal of security presence, but a questionable amount of actual substance.

When I left for days off more than a month ago, that was my first time departing through the international portion of the airport. To enter the airport building, your bags all go through an X-ray and you pass through a metal detector. This is an understandable security measure to prevent people from bringing in weapons into the airport building. However, it's just one guy watching the X-ray screen and sometimes one guy on the metal detector line. If you're discrete, once you are inside, you can watch the guy and his X-ray screen and see what he is looking at. I understand the basics of looking at such an image but short of handgun, I am not sure what would be flagged. Furthermore, without additional assistance, he has no way to stop people and control that access point. Once inside, it is a long walk to the international area and again, there is an X-ray for your bags (keeping in mind that you still have all of them as you have not checked-in yet) and a metal detector for you. Within 100 feet of that checkpoint, there is yet another X-ray for your luggage, but no metal detector for you. the purpose of this immediate X-ray is strange because there is nothing between the two checkpoints where you would pick-up or drop-off anything. You seriously leave one checkpoint, walk 100 feet, and then reach the next checkpoint. (The airport did seem somewhat oddly laid out as if it was meant to accommodate something else.) Go for another nice walk and then you get to the check-in counter. Finally. Checked bag drop and once more through security. Again, an X-ray for your carry-on and a metal detector for you. This feels normal in the sense that this is what you would see in a U.S. airport. Everything else prior to this point was bonus material. To tally it all up, that was three X-rays of my check-in luggage (that I saw), four X-rays of my carry-on bag, and three passes through a metal detector for me. You know what makes me feel safe? Reading the safety briefing card showing the airplane exits and oxygen mask procedure.

For flying to Balkanabat, it is much the same, but without the strange, standalone X-ray-only station. Security when entering the airport. Again to reach the check-in counter. Then once more after checking-in. Though at the last point, while you passed through a metal detector, they did not care if you set it off. It's a great deal of show, but how much is necessary and how much is beneficial. Certainly, anything other than the first and last check-points are redundant. And the first check-point can also be eliminated if baggage screening occurs after checking-in.

In the end, the real question is what is the purpose of airport security. In the U.S., it has become a theater meant to make people think it is safe to fly. In Turkmenistan, the impact it has on travelers is less clear to me. Is it meant to dissuade people from traveling with weapons or contraband? They only opened my bag because of some batteries, which is quite understandable since a pack of dense, metal cylinders could be bullets or something like mini gas canisters. However, this was at the second check-point, not the first, so what was the first guy looking for? Is it sophisticated enough to catch someone purposely trying to move something illicit? Probably not, since all the song and dance of U.S. airport security cannot stop that. Time and time again, the TSA has shown it cannot screen at anything close to a perfect success rate. Instead, I think all the security is there because they think it is supposed to be there. It feels like the good old, 'fake it till you make it' concept. Be doing it and acting like it is serious (and it is to some degree), it gives them an air of legitimacy and projects a sense of official power. Over time, appearances become reality and projections are built into actual substance.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am sure the country has tried it’s best with limited resource, funding and technological know-how.

What US spent does not make us any safer.