Our Security is in Our Hands

Despite the many new rules affecting how passengers fly in commercial aviation these days, I still love to fly. I will never get over the fact that if I can afford the price of the airline ticket, there is almost no place on this planet that I cannot reach within a day or two. My daughter is a graduate student in New Zealand, my son is graduating from law school next week in Oregon, and with a little patience I can be with them, and they with me, when the occasion calls for it. I am an unabashed fan of the Wright Brothers, for they have provided me access to a world that, as child growing up in the Bronx in 1940s and 50s, I could only dream of visiting. While at times I am as frustrated and outraged as any traveler over the new security conditions imposed us in a world preoccupied with terrorism, I never consider not traveling because of it.

I have long believed that placing my personal security entirely in someone else’s hands is a prescription for disaster. For me, personal security is defined as the ability to foresee the existence of risks and the wisdom to avoid them. For many years, I provided security for others who believed that they did not know to protect themselves. In most cases, I taught them to understand the nature of the risks they faced and helped them develop techniques for avoiding them. Security starts with the awareness of foreseeable risks, understanding the magnitude of the threat those risks represent, and selecting an appropriate response to those risks.

Unfortunately, too many Americans don’t take the time to learn how to evaluate their environment from a security point of view; to learn about the options they have available for responding to those risks to their security; and to learn how to select responses that are appropriate for protecting themselves, their property, and their families under the circumstances. Instead they hope that the “one size fits all” security often provided by law enforcement, by employers, by operators of places of pubic accommodation, or by the Department of Homeland Security will protect them from the consequences of crime, including acts of terrorism that may at some time visit them.

In reality, too many of us are willing to take the odds, favorable though they are, that nothing dangerous will happen to us. After all, given all the violence in the world, most of us remain untouched. Upon entering an airport in any city in the world, it is hard to explain how with so much anticipation of violence, flying still remains the safest way to travel. Indeed, in my view, had we no security at all, that would still be the case, given the number of flights and the number of miles covered each day without incident. In fact, hijacking a commercial airliner has become virtually impossible, given the hardening of cockpit doors and the level of awareness of the threat of terrorism on the part of so many passengers. Actually, the real risk of terrorism in commercial aviation comes from the possibility of explosives being placed on board from the ramp side of the airport, and the vulnerability to such an act remains as possible today as it was in 1988, when Pan Am 103 was blown out of the sky over Lockerbie, Scotland.

We are not ready to consign our airport screening program to the scrap heap of failed federal projects yet. While we undergo the process of restructuring the program to allow for more flexibility in how passengers are handled before and during the boarding process, we must (for the sake of our blood pressure if for no other reason) learn how to travel both securely and efficiently.

Today, theft from passenger baggage has reached record highs, despite the imposition of rules against locking checked baggage. Experienced travelers have known for decades that lost, stolen, and pilfered bags are a risk of flying in commercial aviation — indeed, it is much more of a risk than accidents or hijacking ever presented, and that risk has continued to grow. If you must check a bag (despite the fact that by doing so you are extending your travel time unreasonably given the time it takes to have it deposited in baggage claim at many destinations), it is advisable to purchase a TSA-approved lock so that you can at least limit your anxiety over stolen property. It is also a good rule not to have the value of the bag exceed the value of its contents so as to dissuade airport thieves, often luggage connoisseurs, from re-routing it to their automobiles.

Despite the TSA’s proud record of confiscating as many as 10,000 so-called “weapons” per month at Boston’s Logan Airport, travelers still resist unhitching their one-inch pen knives from their key rings before sending them through the screening process. And now that all cigarette lighters are banned from airplane cabins, it’s better to leave yours at home rather than subject yourself to the stress and inconvenience of having its confiscated, being subjected to a fine, and possibly having your name added to the watch list of as many as 100, 000 other travelers who receive special attention from security.

It is true that, on occasion, passengers have been known to even carry a gun past a screening station without detection (as happened in the Louisville, Kentucky Airport on April 30th), but tempting fate by wearing a Western belt buckle past the metal detector is likely to result in your being taken out of line and repeating the process while your carry-on bag, wallet, change, pen, money clip, and watch move along without you. And do take off your shoes, even those for which you paid extra because they were guaranteed not to set off the magnetometer, because failure to do so tends to upset the guardians of your security, who will find ways to express their displeasure with your “uncooperative” attitude.

Security on the Ground
Knowing about security vulnerabilities when traveling means much more than just worrying about the hijacking of airplanes, nerve gas in trains, suicide bombers in restaurants and discos, or dirty bombs in department stores or town squares. Indeed, those are precisely the things not to worry about — because if you choose your destinations carefully they are not reasonably foreseeable risks, and when they do happen, there isn’t much you can do about them anyway. It’s the simpler crimes such as robbery, assault, homicide, and common theft that you need to consider, because they are the ones that are more likely to occur, and are a whole lot easier to avoid, deter, or terminate.

For years, crime against American tourists in places like Mexico City was a well-known phenomenon; yet despite the fact that it is an important business and tourist destination, the municipality seemed unable to provide reasonable security for its visitors. Many victims had relied upon the notion that local police were willing and able to handle the crime problem; and only after their wounds healed did the victims ask themselves, “What could I have done to avoid being victimized?”

The first rule in crime prevention is to accept the fact that bad things can happen to really nice people — and that means you. The U.S. State Department issues alerts about security in cities all over the world; businesses can actually receive daily alerts over the Internet simply by signing up for them. If you hadn’t heard about the security risks at your destination from your own research or from your travel department, than you would have if you had consulted the State Department or even the Internet.

For those of us who have the prerogative of avoiding a dangerous destination, we need only decide to do so. But those of us who, for business or other reasons, must place ourselves in potentially harmful circumstances, should plan to do so at times and under circumstances when common sense says that crime is less likely to occur. If you have no control over times and circumstances, employ protection agencies which are familiar with the types and levels of crime most foreseeable in the locale and are best prepared to respond to them.

It is always wisest not to wander off into unknown areas when traveling, but for some travelers, the reason we are there in the first place is because we are attracted by the new, the unusual, and the unknown. If you insist on taking a tour of the unknown, the safest way is to hire a certified guide or use licensed and scheduled sightseeing services.

If none of these are an option, consult your hotel front desk, your business host, or one of the many better-known travel books before you wander off. Take your cell phone (with a local access service) with you on your adventure, and notify your hotel front desk or some other local person about where you are going, how long you intend to be gone, and what to do if you don’t return as expected. In many places, it is advisable to let the local American embassy or consulate know that you are in town, where you are staying ,and when you plan to leave. Finally, let the folks back home, including your employer if you are on a business trip, know what your itinerary is so that if you can’t find them, they can find you.

Lodger-Friendly Lodgings
Not long ago, America was up in arms over hotel crime. Like our airports, our hotels were all too often a place where property was lost or stolen from baggage, guest rooms, recreation facilities, and public spaces. In addition, reported personal assaults against hotel guests were out of control. In my days as director of tourism for the City of New York, I was regularly consulted by hotel managers about how streets and public spaces could be made secure from the petty thieves, prostitutes, and con artists who preyed upon the visitors who made up our second-largest industry. While these important institutions welcomed as much police support as we could offer for their sidewalks, they were reticent about my offers to accept undercover personnel in their public spaces. In addition, while they welcomed whatever help I could offer by way of processing criminals apprehended by hotel security, they were often not as forthcoming about providing information about how the crimes occurred — which made it difficult to successfully prosecute the accused. Most of all, our hoteliers just wanted the problem to go away as quickly and as quietly as possible. As was stated to me by a general manager of a major New York City hotel, “Our dirty linen must not be aired in public.”

Nowadays, we hear comparatively little about the problem of lodging crime. That is in part because, by airing “dirty linen” in the media, the lodging industry was forced to install modern technology for crime prevention and hire better qualified security personnel. Most importantly, travelers were made aware of how to protect themselves against victimization.

Today, experienced travelers insist upon deadbolt locks, peepholes, and chains for hotel room doors. Only lodgings with top-of-the-line surveillance technology, large security staffs, and solid perimeter patrols would dare offer a guest a conventional room key instead of an electronic card key which can be immediately voided upon loss or scheduled checkout. Lodgings which always required fire safety information in their rooms in the past now also provide security information on the locking of doors, answering of telephones, and calling for assistance; and many provide the information in several languages. It that information is not available, you should not be staying there. Reservations and sales personnel have become accustomed to answering questions about security for individual guest rooms, function rooms, recreation spaces, parking facilities, and surrounding areas. Security has become a marketing tool because travelers have demanded it; and the notion that you can hide information about crime from the public has been reevaluated.

Meetings and Conventions
In October, 2001, a major American corporation had planned its annual convention at a well-known resort in Florida. Among its guests were some 750 officers from the nation’s military branches who were scheduled to attend four days of meetings and evening recreational festivities on and off the site. After all of the planning had been completed by the host corporation, the Department of Defense, in response to the events of 9/11, asked them to provide a breakdown of all of the security precautions that had been put in place for the meeting.

Having relied upon the host facility for security for both the meetings and housing, and the available security at the several local recreational venues for the evening festivities, it was feared that the Defense Department might not allow their employees to attend the event under the circumstances prevailing at the time. At a loss as to how to develop an “acceptable” security plan against reasonably foreseeable risks of crime and terrorism presented by hundreds of military personnel and a guest speaker who was a retired four-star general, I was asked to develop a plan.

It is always of paramount importance to know the profile of the group to be secured and the circumstances under which they will be present before deciding what is needed to avoid a security threat. It is of no value to attempt to impose restraints on attendees which run counter to the purposes for which they are assembled, and that includes recreational activities. To do so diminishes the event’s meaningfulness. Don’t tell several hundred soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen where they can go and what they can do on their own time! It is far better to invite them to events they want to attend, provide safe transportation to and from those events, and secure the venues so that unauthorized persons and objects can’t breach your security. By doing so, you will offer a plan that even the Department of Defense will accept — and they did.

Most corporate meeting and conventions do not require the same degree of security as is required by an audience targeted by criminals. Once you know the profile of your audience and the reasonably foreseeable risks to their security, and have determined what needs to be done to avoid interfering with the stated purpose of the event, appropriate security planning will follow. One size security does not fit all. If security is too tight, it will be ignored; if it is too loose it will be ignored; if it is just right, most people will not even know it is there — yet breaches will not occur.

Security and the Law: When Security is a Legal Duty
From time to time, most travelers engage in what might be considered from a security point of view as “reckless conduct.” We don’t always use the room safe; we take a chance and leave a camera or some jewelry in drawer, a coat pocket, or in a piece of luggage. The odds of the item not being stolen by a hotel employee are high, because statistically, hotel employees are for the most part honorable people who will not resort to thievery simply because they have been entrusted with the care of your property. It is also true that, even though many commercial airliner engines are being maintained and repaired abroad by people who do not have the same FBI clearances and training of American mechanics, your plane will not crash due to engine failure or intentional sabotage.

This is because of redundant systems in the case of airliner engines, and competent selection techniques, training, and supervisory practices on the part of hotels. But the fact that we provide safes for many hotel rooms today, and require criminal background checks and certifications for our aviation mechanics, indicates that we have established reasonable standards for our safety and security that should be observed. And when we fail to observe these standards and a foreseeable risk results in loss, injury, or death, somebody is usually required to pay a penalty for having ignored that risk.

When it comes to the issue of protecting people from unreasonable exposure to reasonably foreseeable risks of crime, that protection is generally looked upon as a duty which is imposed because morally and legally it should be. That an innocent party may be legally bound to protect another from a crime committed by an often-unknown criminal is a concept that has being taken more seriously in this era of international terrorism than ever before.

Boeing Corporation has been accused by victims of the 9/11 disaster at the World Trade Center of responsibility for the events of that day. They share those accusations with airlines and security guard firms. Surely, nobody believes that Boeing conspired with Mohammed Atta and his cohorts in converting two airliners into missiles to be fired at the Twin Towers; nobody is suggesting that they intentionally placed weapons on board the airliners for the use of the hijackers, or that they intentionally hired unskilled and poorly-trained screeners so that terrorists could carry weapons in their carry-on baggage. Nevertheless, if the federal court in the southern district of New York finds that they had a legal duty to prevent the flight deck from being entered by the terrorists and the that they breached their duty to prevent these events from occurring, they may be found liable — not because they committed the crime, but because they allowed the crime to occur by not taking reasonable steps to prevent it.

Finding someone negligent for not taking reasonable steps to prevent a reasonably foreseeable crime from taking place involves often complicated legal requirements and difficult reasoning. The nature of the relationship which establishes a duty to protect needs to be considered; the foreseeability of the crime risk needs to be established; and the adequacy of the security in place to prevent the occurrence of the crime must be examined. Crimes need not be prevented from occurring even when there is a duty to protect; they need only be subjected to reasonable security efforts and then only when the crime is foreseeable. But when a traveler is a crime victim while on the property of another, the owner and the operator of the property — usually a hotel, a parking lot, or even a theatre — may be found to have had a duty to reasonably attempt to have prevented the crime from occurring.

As the duty to protect travelers expands to more third parties, perhaps those who advise on travel destinations need to examine the extent of their potential liability. Perhaps employers responsible for sending employees on the road need to consider advising those employees about reasonable security, and perhaps meeting planners need to consider asking appropriate security-related questions of lodgings and venue operators. Whether there is a duty to provide reasonable security advice or more for travelers will depend upon the nature of the relationships between the parties, but what is a legal duty in the future may be measured against what is today a moral obligation for the protection of one by another, making the issue worth the consideration.

How Can You Provide For Your Own Security?
We live in a world where the tallest buildings in Manhattan can be leveled in a matter of hours; where thousands of innocent lives can be violently ended in their workplace; where the seat of power of the strongest nation on Earth can be savagely attacked by a few lone terrorists in an airliner; and where all of us are regularly reminded that, despite the end of the Cold War and the absence of any real threat from any nation capable of successfully attacking us, we can, without notice, be subjected to biological, chemical, or nuclear weapons in our streets, institutions, transport systems and the like. Is there any real protection available to us?

The answer is: I don’t know.  What I do know is that the better able we are to predict violence in advance, the more likely we are to be able to avoid personal victimization. The more we know about providing reasonable security against reasonably foreseeable risks of crime, the more likely we are to deter criminals, including terrorists, from selecting us as targets. And the better able we are to fight off an attack, the more likely it becomes that whatever form of violence we encounter, we will survive it.

None of us is immune to violence, but the more aware we are about our personal security, and the more willing we become about investing in our own protection, the more easily we will go on about our business in our free society. We are not all equal in size, strength, intellect, or experience, but we all have enough of each to learn how to protect ourselves. Learning how to use our own potential for self protection takes some time, some planning, and a lot of effort. But we can all learn to make a contribution to our own security — and that knowledge can provide the confidence to help us survive even the most violent of encounters.

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