The Tuesday one week ago was the first day after the snowfalls. The disaster in innocent white had had days to blanket Hyde Park in beauty and dust the rolling fields of Sussex, as I would later see through the window of the Airbus that was taking me to Frankfurt on the first leg of my trip home for Christmas.
I went to the airport without apprehension. The worst was over. The storms had calmed, the snow stopped. Heathrow was running normally; no involuntary festivalgoers were camping in the terminal building when I got there. The great bazaar was busy, but not more so than can be expected at a time of receding recession.
The falling passenger numbers that accompanied the economic downturn had been good to the area around the bazaar. The demand for chairs that had burned hot in headier times had eased, convincing those running the airport to upgrade some of the narrow wooden contraptions with wider, more comfortable leather-upholstered versions. I sunk into on of those and dug into The New Yorker. Life was good.
Life deteriorated when my glance swept across one of the big screens announcing departure times and gate numbers. My flight was delayed by fifty minutes before it had even started, a gap that would widen over time to two hours. My layover in Frankfurt was ninety minutes. I saw the connecting flight depart into the cloud-covered sky already, but I had a few stories left to read and an untouched book in my carry-on. Surely I'd get home eventually.
I would have indeed missed the connection, had it not been delayed as well. Frankfurt had been closed in the morning owing to an unexpected snow encore, and everything was messed up. When I finally got to Dresden, I found out by how much. Half the luggage, including mine, that should have been on the plane wasn't. It was eventually delivered to my parents' front door three days later. Christmas had come and gone, and I had had nothing to wear outside the few items I bought hastily in between scouring for last-minute gifts. I kept my smile, thinking the return flight would go more smoothly.
Two days ago, a kid tempted by the devil's words of sweet paradise tried to blow up a transatlantic airliner. He had explosives stapled to his scrotum and the dexterity of a monkey drunk on fermented honey. Trying to detonate his balls, he fumbled and set his pants on fire. Another passenger quickly overwhelmed him, doused his crotch with beer and saved the lives of hundreds. Today, al-Qaida brags about this failure.
Also today, those responsible for airport security are in a heightened state of frazzled panic. As always, rather than addressing the problem, the goal seems to be creating an illusion of safety. The number of security checkpoints has been doubled overnight, but the procedure is still the same, archaic and illogical. Coats off, belts off, pockets empty, laptops out. The lot is x-rayed, as are the passengers. Plastic explosives concealed in private areas go undetected. The would-be mass-murderer from two days ago would have walked through either checkpoint I encountered this afternoon with impunity. Regular passengers, in contrast, have to endure lines as long as most faces, and a tense mood of incomprehension and anger. Nothing is gained.
It seems that in the current discussion, most use no more than half a brain when thinking how air travel can be made more secure. Whenever an incident happens or is prevented, the same ineffective safety measures are redoubled, and one of the tools the terrorists' tools, arbitrarily chosen, is banned. For a while everyone walked shoeless through security gates and up to now, no one's allowed to bring water aboard, though flacons with undefined content don't need to be placed in resealable transparent bags anymore. In response to the catastrophe that almost happened two days ago, some airlines are now prohibiting passengers from leaving their seats in the last hour of the flight, as if that was the only time to detonate a bomb.
There's no quick solution to this, and maybe none at the level of air travel security at all. Plastic explosives can be detected with the right (expensive) equipment, but those determined to kill will always find a way. As long as scatterbrains bent on ending their lives for maximum collateral damage are allowed to travel, incidents will happen. But with intelligence gathered globally and piling up in bulging databases, there's always a chance that even the most obvious candidate slips through unnoticed and unflagged and is not pulled out at security or earlier.
The fearful can stop traveling altogether. The paranoid can lock their doors and never leave the house. They would still be afraid and worrying. I had to get back to London and I boarded either flight without any concern. My seat neighbors didn't grope their groins or read Terror on the Airline for Dummies. They read newspapers, and so did I. Five hours after the first takeoff, I turned the key to my new apartment. All my luggage was with me and I was delighted to be back in London, back home.