Wednesday, August 15, 2007

The Invisible Threat

In the not too distant past it would have seemed somewhat odd to talk about terrorist threats while leafing through your vacation snapshots. Sadly, the Bogeyman is our regular traveling companion anymore. I'd swear we know some TSA agents by name down in good ol' Orlando MCO. And the sight of National Guardsman (with serious firepower at the ready) is almost an unremarkable fixture in many tourist spots throughout the US.

But Europe was different. In the UK, the threat of the Bogeyman seemed more ominous; the feeling of safety more tangible.
  • Salisbury Plain - tank crews patrolled the back-roads of Salisbury Plain as we casually strolled the walking paths of Stonehenge. Yes, the picture above is real.
  • London - as London Eye riders exit their 'capsule', 2 attendants calmly enter the capsule with over-sized dental mirrors. Their goal: search under benches and above light fixtures for anything suspicious. Oh, and don't take video footage of this process - they don't like that at all. Trust me.
  • Portsmouth - the current terror threat level is causally posted for all to see in this, the home of the British Navy. Two heavily-armed (i.e. automatic assault rifles) security officers stand watch over a group of burka-clad ladies and their children as holiday photos are snapped beside the HMS Victory. The security officers don't pretend to be doing anything other than watching these people. When the Muslim tourists move, so does the security detail.
  • UK in general - We heard a statistic on the radio as we putt-putted down the M4. The UK employs more CCTV (security) cameras per capita than anywhere else in the world. While actual numbers are not known, the estimate is something close to 1 camera for every 12 people. That's over 5,000,000 cameras keeping citizens safe - or something. George Orwell sprang to mind as London police arrested the latest batch of terrorist suspects based on CCTV evidence.
France - or rather Paris - was another story. The only overt security we really saw were a few soldiers patrolling a railway crossing in the middle of nowhere as we sped by on the Eurostar. As well, the President's residence enjoyed the protection of a few dozen Surete and soldiers. Their job was mostly standing around making idle chit-chat and some occasional spirited blowing of whistles at rubbernecking tourists.

Beyond this, it seemed that the French are somewhat half-hearted about the whole idea of terrorist threats - no armed officers prowling tourist hot-spots, no posted threat levels. There were some very token bag inspections at the Louvre and Disneyland, but that was it. Our hotel was a stone's throw from the Saudi and Japanese embassies, but we saw exactly one rent-a-cop in the vicinity. His job: keep the illegal parkers from his part of the street.

Two countries. Two realities. And both different than ours. It's a strange old world, isn't it?