On 9 November, Hassan Khalif Shire Ali crashed a vehicle full of gas cylinders in Bourke Street, Melbourne and stabbed three people, one fatally, before being shot by police. The 30-year old was on multiple watchlists at the time because if his known radical views and links to Islamic State. Yet he was not under active counter-terrorism monitoring at the time and able to embark on his murderous rampage in the heart of Melbourne. One reason may be that our security and law enforcements agencies are drowning in too much ‘intelligence noise’ and lack the intelligence, common sense and fortitude to focus on genuine risk categories instead of casting a population wide dragnet.
In a previous incarnation, I used to visit Northern Ireland on a regular basis. In the period after the Good Friday agreement of 10 April 1998 but before peace took hold, life returned to a semblance of normality and security procedures were gradually normalised, I was flying from Belfast to Birmingham. The airport had two layers of security. The second was the regular thorough check that we are all used to after checking in for the flight and then entering the ‘sterile’ area of the airport prior to boarding.
The first was as people entered the terminal building. A security guard watched the people entering and, using his discretion, either let them through unchallenged or directed them to a preliminary security screening. Not one person ahead of me had been stopped. I was. I cooperated fully with the procedures and then, after being cleared, asked the police officer if he would answer a simple question.
Life in the post-9/11 world had become tougher for all flyers, I said, and many of us from the ‘visible minorities’ had become used to discreet but real extra scrutiny. Even though profiling was not supposed to happen, I said, I understood the need for it and did not object to nor resent it, as long as it was done professionally, courteously and efficiently. Which it mostly was.
But if they were going to engage in profiling, they should at least get their profiles right.
‘When was the last time you had a terrorist attack in Northern Ireland committed by a dark-skinned person’, I asked?
‘Move on, Sir’ he said, and I did.
I recalled that incident as on the last three consecutive flights out of Sydney, I have been pulled aside for the extra-special attention of the full bodyscanners. It is of course personally dispiriting to be subjected to more intense racial profiling in my home country than anywhere else in the world, even more so than in Europe and the US. Indeed as an exceptionally frequent flyer all around the world, in the Western world the least evident racial profiling in my direct experience is in the US, Canada, UK and New Zealand.
But more than the personal angst is the sheer stupidity of our airport security procedures. So, like my unanswered question to the Belfast Airport policeman, here is a set of questions to three different groups.
To the ministers in the Coalition Government: On the basis of the mass of data from across the Western world since 9/11, what is the terrorism-related security risk posed by a 70-year old Asian male compared to a young Caucasian male? As a non-specialist and going by newspaper accounts, I would have thought the two high-risk categories are Islamist and white supremacist violent extremists.
To Labor, Green and the other assortment of progressives: Why exactly should all the rest of us in the low-risk categories have to tolerate the extra hassles because you wilfully refuse to permit evidence-based profiling for detecting and defeating security risks?
To the senior executives across the intelligence, security services and law enforcement agencies: Like most Australians, I have difficulty containing my contempt for politicians who are more concerned with expanding and rorting their own entitlements than advancing the public interest, more intent on chasing votes to gain power than on using that power for promoting the public good. But you are the professionals. As a non-professional but heavy ‘consumer’ of airport security procedures, it seems to me our procedures are among the least efficient. Big data should permit us to divide travellers into low, average and high risk categories and stream them into security lanes accordingly.
In the US this sorting out is done by computers at the point of check in and printed on the boarding pass. The other good system they have that we should copy is not to repeat security screenings at transit airports. Flying with the US with the same airline, travellers are security-screened only at the originating airport and then can carry through multiple legs to the final destination unmolested. Indeed I once flew Toronto-Los Angeles-Sydney without having to repeat the security checks in LA. And at some airports, depending on which country/airport they have flown in from, international transit passengers are exempted from repeat screening.
I would have far greater faith in the computerised algorithms of big data than in the skin-colour based visual instincts of the poorly educated, minimally trained and not very intelligent airport screeners. As a frequent traveller, I would be perfectly happy to apply for a special pass based on a security assessment of my past life. In addition, many countries direct the elderly into low-risk screening lanes. The next time you are at an Australian security screening station, look for the number of elderly people whose assortment of knee, hip and other body-replacement procedures sets off the alert. Real dangers to society, aren’t they? The computers and dedicated specialist personnel could still keep careful watch for telltale signs of potential risk factors like last-minute one-way flights or symptoms of nervousness.
Airport experiences have become simply dreadful. But it seems beyond perverse to combine added unpleasantness to inefficient, and possibly counter-productive in building anti-social resentments, procedures that introduce so much noise that the key signals are missed entirely.
Ramesh Thakur, a former UN assistant secretary-general, is emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University.