Two recent events have put airport security back at the top of the global agenda. Of course the post-911 world has turned air travel into a Herculean and uncomfortable process, so heightened airport security is an issue that is a reality for millions of passengers.
However we have recently been reminded quite how fragile this security framework really is. Airports are hellish places at the best of times, but things are only going to get worse.
Unless you’ve been in a coma or living in a monastery in Tibet, you have probably heard about the Nigerian fanatic who attempted to set off explosives which were stored in his underpants.
It was like a cross between Mr Bean and a Tom Clancy novel. Serious questions are now being asked about airport security and how the man was allowed to carry the explosives across three continents.
Considering how many security checks I have had to go through anytime I travel, I find it astonishing that this man very nearly got through the net.
One of the unfortunate implications of this is that Africans, in general, and Nigerians in particular are going to find it much harder to travel solely because of the actions of one man.
The fact that airport security is rigidly reactive makes this inevitable.
In another case also situated uncomfortably between the chilling and the amusing ends of the spectrum, Slovakian airport security committed what is by some distance the most stupendous act of incompetence in the field.
They placed explosives in the bags of random passengers to test how effective they would be in intercepting those explosives.
Unfortunately they failed the test- one passenger was allowed to fly all the way to Dublin with said explosives. It led to what can only generously be described as a ‘misunderstanding’ with Irish police and he was detained, before the Slovakians eventually told them what had happened, a full three days later.
Both cases will certainly never appear in a highlights reel for the men and women who protect the global borders, but it does reinforce several things.
One obvious one is that we can never truly be safe. No amount of security can ever truly prevent a terrorist attack or ensure that passengers will be safe.
There is a trade-off between nations’ need for global travel and its desire to protect its borders from psychopaths.
For air travel to remain practically possible, security has to remain stringent but not all-encompassing.
It is not a comforting thought, but it is the reality.
Another chilling thought is that, in one way, the terrorists are already winning.
Their main target, of course, is to cause destruction and death on a massive scale. However they are also keen to spread fear and suspicion in their target societies, and to create as much chaos as they can.
In this, they have undoubtedly succeeded. Heightened airport security is simply organized chaos.
But there is also a positive lesson to be learned from the aborted terrorist attack last week. When the would-be bomber tried and failed to set off his bomb, he was attacked by gallant passengers and subdued.
The lesson is that even with the most rigorous and high-tech security, it is other passengers who will always be the last line of defence. In these troubled times that is about as optimistic as many of us can get.
Minega Isibo is a lawyer