The Illusion of Security—and the Security of Illusion

A few months ago I took the train from New Delhi to Agra, India, and lived to tell the tale (or write about it, in this case). Fear of a crash or derailment wasn’t foremost in my mind, though Indian trains have a habit of doing both with disturbing frequency. The anniversary of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks was approaching, and Indian trains also have a habit of attracting terrorist mischief. In the 2008 attack one of the Mumbai gunmen shot up the main train station, killing dozens. In 2006, seven bombs exploded in 11 minutes on the Mumbai metro, killing 209. In 2002, Muslim militants bombed a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. In India, travel by train is not a risk-averse activity.

"The train station was hardly a model of high security."

Despite the anniversary, the New Delhi train station was hardly a model of high security. At the bottom of the stairway leading to the boarding platform a checkpoint had been set up. I placed my bag on the metal rollers that fed it into an X-ray scanner while a low-paid civil servant gazed at a grubby computer screen. A moment later it appeared on the other side. Feeling no more secure, I lugged it up the steps (the investment in the scanner must have trumped the expense of an escalator) and boarded the train.

The silliness of the security check was immediately clear. It was to give the appearance of security and nothing more. If I really wanted to blow up the train there was no need to carry a bomb because an accomplice could have tossed me one over the chain-link fence that ran alongside the platform. Or I could have walked to a far corner of the yard and picked up one I had placed there the night before. The security check was an elaborate illusion, with all the players, myself included, acting their parts.

At 2:35 P.M. the doors clattered shut and the train began rolling south toward Agra. But the Rajasthan Express did not live up to its name. A few hundred meters before each station we would often sit for 5, 10, sometimes 15 minutes while passengers anxious to get off simply tossed their bags onto the tracks and scrambled down the embankment. Anyone wanting to turn it into a charred wreck had every opportunity.

Four hours on an Indian train can last a lifetime, or it can pass quickly if one is lucky enough to share a compartment with an interesting stranger. Sitting across from me was a man 30 to 35 years old with the healthy build of an exercise trainer. His trip had started in Southeast Asia and made his way to China and Tibet, and was now halfway through a circle of India before moving on to . . . he didn’t quite know.

"The Express did not live up to its name."

I told him about the security check at the train station, and soon we were talking about airport security. I offered a suggestion: “Instead of all these baggage screens and body scans, why not hire experts in body language to wander through the crowds, watching for strange behavior. They could even pass through the line themselves to spot anything that seemed suspicious.”

He nodded in boredom or agreement. I wanted to think of it as agreement, so I pressed on.

“If something like this was tried I doubt that a single bomber would slip through, but many other crimes might be uncovered—a parent ‘stealing’ their child out of custody, a passenger who had bought their ticket with a stolen credit card. Think of the waste—the time, the effort, the expense—and none of it is helping us find that one.”

Now he was nodding like someone who had heard all this before. I waited for a reaction, and one finally came.

“Those security checks don’t do much good,” he said. “ ‘Random’ checks aren’t that random. People make decisions, consciously or not, and sometimes they choose someone obviously not suspicious so that it seems random.”

I was surprised that anyone would speak so frankly and asked him where he got his information. He told me—he was an immigration officer at Sydney Airport.

I asked him what warranted suspicion.

“A story that sounds too prepared. Or someone seems too sure of themselves. People will puff themselves up with confidence to convince themselves they can beat the system. Fear and worry in that kind of situation are normal. Overconfidence isn’t.”

That was it—the distinction between the normal and abnormal has been lost in the post-9/11 era. So much attention is directed at the normal—cosmetic cases and half-finished bottles of cough syrup—that the truly abnormal may pass unnoticed. The full-body scan is simply another step in building an illusion of security. It may reveal a lot more than many passengers would like, but it doesn’t tell us anything about a state of mind. If we really want to stop planes from blowing up in the sky we should begin at the beginning—in the mind of the person who conceives such a plan and how this might be revealed. That’s the hard part, but the only way that “prevention” and “deterrence” will have any meaning.

After a few more unscheduled stops that left us exposed, vulnerable, and unmolested on the tracks, we rolled into Agra.

The station hall was a hive of humanity, and homeless beggars were camped on the floor, with slabs of cardboard for mattresses and ragged blankets for covers. There might have been a bomb concealed under any of the natty blankets, but I wasn’t inclined to look. I was more interested in finding a tuk-tuk to take me to my hotel, because in India, well, all this is normal. About that I had no illusion.