Over the years, I've spent many hours, more than I care to count, in airports around the world.
From the perspective of security, one is in a class by itself: Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport. In the wake of the thwarted terrorist attempt on Northwest Flight 253, it's time to revisit the Israeli model, as other countries ask what more can be done to prevent such near-catastrophes.
What are the Israeli ingredients? I don't pretend to know them all, many of which are understandably hidden from view. But some are quite obvious and rather distinguishable from the norm at too many other airports.
In Israel, security comes first. It's never an afterthought. It's not outsourced to the semi-competent. It's not about show-and-tell. Rather, it's front-line work that's in the hands of professionals and is well-coordinated and no-nonsense.
Israel creates a set of security layers, or circles, around airports - and, by extension, airplanes.
By the time a traveler boards the plane, there have been any number of potential interception points, starting with the toll-booth-like security entrance for all vehicles entering the airport grounds. Every car is stopped, while the guards make visual examinations and follow their training and instinct. Behind them stand intense-looking young men with sub-machine guns at the ready.
When entering the terminal buildings, again, more non-uniformed guards and more visual screening.
Then there's the first actual security line in advance of flight check-in. An official approaches each passenger on line and patiently poses questions, which aren't simply perfunctory, as they are, say, here in New York. They can be rather extensive and by no means predictable, usually accompanied by a review of tickets and passports -- before the formal passport control, which only comes after check-in -- to corroborate statements about itineraries and examine travel patterns.
When it comes to the actual security lines after check-in -- the ones we're familiar with -- the contrast with, for instance, the U.S. can be striking. Everyone is quiet. There is no appearance of hyper-activity (the "more-is-less" phenomenon), as too often is the case at American airports. Interestingly, no one in Israel has ever asked me to take off my shoes or remove liquids from my hand luggage, suggesting how sensitive the available technology can be.
Apropos, in a similar vein, after 9/11, when, on American flights, we were being handed plastic cutlery, flights from Israel continued to use stainless steel. Israel was less concerned with the symbols of apparent security -- the "Mickey-Mouse stuff," as someone called it -- and more focused on what constituted its real elements.
And even after successfully passing the security line, there's more to come, right up to the plane's interior, at least if it's El Al, where air marshals are deployed on every flight.
In fact, speaking of marshals, in 2001, Richard Reid, who was later to become the notorious shoe bomber, flew on El Al. According to a CBS news report, while the Israelis didn't have enough on him at the time to keep him off the plane, they were suspicious. They examined everything before he boarded and then, for good measure, placed a marshal in the adjoining seat. If he was on a scouting mission, he got the point and looked elsewhere.
To those who have never visited Israel, this may all sound as if it requires a full day, if not a week, before the actual flight. Not true. For the average passenger, the whole process moves quickly and with a minimum of personal inconvenience.
Of course, for travelers who have multiple visas from Yemen or Pakistan in their passports, look fidgety or distracted, become unnerved after the second question, try to buy a one-way ticket at the last minute with cash, show up with no luggage for an intercontinental journey, are wearing a heavy coat in summer, or display "attitude," it's likely to be a rather different story.
And this is the key. Israel understands that you need a security system that carefully scrutinizes everyone, as you can never tell who might be involved. Recall, for instance, the case of Anne Mary Murphy, the pregnant Irishwoman who, in 1986, planned to fly on El Al from London to Tel Aviv, thinking she was to meet her fiancé's Palestinian parents. Unbeknownst to her, he placed explosives in her suitcases, plotting the mid-air destruction of the plane carrying her and their unborn child. An alert El Al agent prevented disaster.
That said, the Israelis believe there must be an additional assessment mechanism -- apart from the essential pre-flight intelligence gathering -- which acknowledges that not everyone is equally likely to carry out a terrorist attack. Some call it profiling, which has become a dirty word to those who think it conjures up notions of racial, religious, or ethnic targeting. In reality, it's more sophisticated than simplistic classification.
At the end of the day, Israel's approach depends as much, if not more, on the human dimension as it does on sophisticated technology. It also places a higher priority on saving lives by preventing tragedies than succumbing to what might be termed political correctness or privacy concerns.
It's clear, even to the casual observer, that those responsible for security at Ben-Gurion Airport (and, no less importantly, for El Al flights traveling to Israel from airports around the world) see themselves on the front lines in the country's defense. It is a job, of course, but it's much more.
Each security official understands that the safety of the traveling public depends on the alertness and judgment exercised at every step of the elaborate process. Each recognizes that all this is not an abstraction, a distant prospect, but something very immediate.
Thus, as Israel has shown, it requires ongoing training and the capacity to anticipate the terrorists' next moves. Too often, we tend to employ an "after-the-fact' strategy, otherwise known as fighting the last war. That means a permanent effort to probe the potential vulnerabilities -- and plug them up fast.
In reality, of course, no country can claim a foolproof system, and all countries in the front lines against terrorism have experience to share. But, as recent events strikingly underscore, there is still much work to be done -- and at least some of it was embarrassingly avoidable.
Israel, which for decades has been on the front line in the war waged against the West by radical Islam, has more than its share of experience in dealing with both terrorist methodology and the jihadist mindset. We could all do a lot worse than to learn from the Israeli model.