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May 28, 2017

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Security measures after 9/11 may seem tough, but they are justified

KUALA LUMPUR -- On 9/11 — or 11/9 as the British say — I was traveling from London down to the west of England for a weekend break. When the news came over the radio, I thought and said that the twin towers passenger jet attacks had to be one of the biggest stories in history.

The effect on overseas travel for me was near immediate. When I went to pay my San Francisco-based brother a routine visit later that year, I was stunned by the San Francisco International Airport's (SFO) welcome. The security was even heavier than it had always been at Singapore's Changi Airport. Inside the terminal, darting-eyed guards had fingers on triggers, apparently expecting a firefight to erupt any second.

I slowed my movements, trying to look as little like a twitchy terrorist as possible. Looking casual got harder when I noticed new security toys: bulbous Orwellian cameras on stalks and biometric fingerprint scanners. Ratcheting up the pressure, the New York accent-equipped guard who took my photo and fingerprint was icy, borderline hostile.

Who could blame him? His country had been attacked.

Still, his snappy manner seemed over the top. I have blue eyes and blond hair. I wondered if he seriously thought that I might be a terrorist. Back then, so long before white supremacist Anders Breivik ran riot in Norway, it seemed highly unlikely.

Anyway, the hassle made me less keen to return to SFO again, although I did and duly got an equally frosty welcome that half made me want to fly straight back to London. Speaking of which, post-9/11, London's Heathrow Airport noticeably toughened up, too. Think body-armored Metropolitan cops wielding automatic weapons — quite a sight in a country where the police normally just carry batons.

But back then, the heavy security seemed necessary. It still does, given the state of hostilities in Afghanistan.

That said, along with departure and arrival cards, the strictures made flying more of a chore.

In 2002, al-Qaida "shoe bomber" Richard Reid complicated matters by trying to down an airliner in flight by detonating explosives hidden in his shoes. Reid's plot led to the requirement of American airline passengers removing their shoes for inspection before boarding a flight.

Now, that is a drag — just like the post-9/11 rule that forbids you from carrying liquids and gels in your suitcase. I lost an ill-packed tube of toothpaste that way. And I once saw a passenger go ballistic at forfeiting some stowed-away bottles of perfume. He claimed not to know about the new rule.

Everyone does now. You get used to it. No dramas. Still, the niggling incursions on liberty militate against holiday spirit. Worse, security looks unlikely to lighten up any time soon, given that the "good war" in Afghanistan, which 9/11 sparked, rumbles on.

The 33,000 troops set to return to the United States by the end of next year will leave two-thirds of the occupying force in the theater, still fuelling antagonism. Then there is apparently permanent Arab-Israeli friction. So moaning about security strictures would be precious of me, but I am lucky — I have yet to be heavily frisked or groped in one of the "enhanced pat downs" that cause understandable consternation.

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