Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Perils of International Travel

Going along with the theme of travel warnings, another unfortunate quote from a tourist information guide to Japan caught my eye: “The Ministry of Justice of Japan amended the 'Law on immigration control and refugee status' to prevent terrorist threat. All foreigners will have to leave their fingerprints and be shot (full face) while passing immigration control… Entry to Japan for foreigners who refuse passing the above mentioned procedures will be prohibited.” Some relief will be felt by parents that “kids younger [than] 16” will be spared this feature of Japan’s war on terror.

While the above may be a slight misapplication of the English language, it does bring up the question of just how much of the security regime introduced in our post-9/11 world is actually meant to increase the safety of the traveling public. Are we any safer now that our flip-flops go through x-ray and all piercings are removed before boarding? Are we reassured to see Arabic-looking men pulled aside for further scrutiny? A Quinnipiac University National Poll says we are.

In public the TSA assures us all precautions necessary are being taken, yet new ones keep being introduced. The most recent addition to a long and growing list of prohibited items are
spare lithium rechargeable batteries. Over a year ago we were told deodorants and mascara are a threat to national security. I am waiting for the day my glasses are taken away for their potential to become “weaponized” as sharp, compact projectiles (let us hope TSA is not reading).

The inconvenience to the public is of course not a loss to all. Since the ban on liquids,
airport concessions have been doing brisk business in bottled water and toiletries. Mailing companies, seeing great potential in the oops factor, have installed self-service mail-back kiosks at some airports that allow those without enough foresight to mail their nail clippers and skin creams just before going through security. Some companies have even started re-selling the confiscated items on eBay.

That, however, is America. Once abroad, rules seem to change dramatically. Japan, of all places, introduced a regulation banning all sharp objects on their planes over a year before 9/11. Back in 2000, having just arrived in Tokyo, I was surprised when the Swiss Army knife I was able to bring with me from Seattle was taken away before boarding my connecting flight. The difference between that experience and the one thousands of people go through every day in the US is that that knife was handed back to me in a sealed envelope upon arrival in Sapporo. My shoes, rather bulky-looking things, were also x-rayed. I was given slippers to wear through the ordeal.

On a recent trip to China I realized only too late that a bottle of water remained in my carryon. The Chinese, not fooled by such subversive behavior, recovered the bottle from my bag. Apologies, in this case, did not suffice. On the spot, and in public view, I was subjected to beverage consumption. After two or three sips, the bottle was again taken away, to undergo a sniff test by one of the security personnel. Satisfied that I was not smuggling some potent baijiu on board, I was sent away – with the bottle.

Of course not all airports are so easy. Leaving Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport I, and many of those before me, breezed through security with my shoes on, and a mostly symbolic pat-down. The Indian gentleman behind me, however, was not so lucky. Reminiscent of a scene from ”
Airplane II,” the cleanest-looking fellow got the not-so-clean treatment.

Which bring back the notice on Japan first mentioned. Much has been written on
Japanese xenophobia, and the country’s reluctance to accept immigration to bolster its falling working population. The reaction of the expat community in Japan upon the introduction of this new law was highly critical, blaming said xenophobia as the main driver behind the initiative. In an increasingly globalized world, in which the traveling public has choices about where to travel, will countries such as Japan succumb to self-isolation? One can imagine travelers to Asia flying over the archipelago and looking down, curious about the culture and the sights, yet highly reluctant to experience a shot to the face.

photo by thepartycow (CC)


Matthew Hennessey said...

Warren - I'm really enjoying this travel diary. Keep 'em coming.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was scheduled to fly New York to London. At roughly 8AM, I was asked by a JFK security guard to take a few sips of my coffee before passing through to the departure lounge. I remember thinking, "Well, this is weird. Does he think I'm carrying liquid nitrogen or something?" I remarked upon the incident to my wife, but of course, the day took my thoughts elsewhere. I was reminded of it by your anecdote here.

Be safe.

acarr08 said...

I am very surprised that Japan has taken such a drastic measure in airport securIty. This past fall I went through airports in Sweden, England and Italy and these increased measures have become so irritating, but I also feel like it's a necessary evil. I feel like a little inconvience is worth in what it gives us in return, safety. Granted, this necessary has severe drawbacks, for example, the stigma upon people of Middle Eastern descent. However, this instance with Japan demonstrates that airport traveling can go over the line. Taking photographs combined with fingerprinting is a step that goes beyond securing safety and into invasion of privacy. I also do agree that implementing these measures will effect their tourist revenue and may eventually lead to increased isolation.

Amanda said...

Agreed. I think it is very important to tighten international airplane security after 9/11, but people are going overboard with the little annoying details and racial profiling. David Harris, author of Profiles in Injustice: Why Racial Profiling Cannot Work, claims that an effective alternative for preventing terrorism is behavior profiling. "If you're going to catch people who mean to put bombs on your subway trains or in airplanes, you don't actually care [if they're] young Muslim men ... You care about [keeping] anyone from boarding the airplane who is going to behave like a terrorist" (Zetter). After being successfully used in Israel, an organization called New Age Security Solutions supports a novel technique known as behavior pattern recognition. They have been training citizens and law enforcers on how to identify and approach those who behave with the mannerisms of a potential terrorist. The signs to watch for “can be as obvious as someone acting nervous and sweating profusely on a cold day or as subtle as someone walking awkwardly in a way that indicates the person could be wearing a belt of explosives” (Zetter). By using alternative methods like behavior profiling for catching terrorists, countries like the U.S., Japan and China can better protect the national security while ensuring respect for different ethnic groups and the privacy of travelers.

Krys said...

I somewhat agree with what you're saying, but because of the fact that I'm a practical person, here's how I view the situation: If I'm flying a mile high in the air on a plane that is sensitive to explosion, I want to know that I'm safe. So, if hightened security is going to become the norm in airports, which I think it should, people need to simply get over it. Okay, so you have to stand in line for an hour to ensure that you won't die; big deal! And to eliminate racial profiling, the solution is simple, pay the security guards enough for them to really care about what they are doing and treat everyone as if they are a potential terrorist. If one person is picked out of a group, the liability issues are present, but if everyone has to go through the same rigorous, "annoying" security check, then the problem of "profiling" disappears.

Ella davis said...

The airports that handle the international flights are included in the first rate airport group in Japan. Although the customaries at the airport seem to be an inconvenience to the travelers, they are incorporated for safety aspects.