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The Straits Times says

Air security matters, so does efficacy

The move by the United States and Britain to ban air travellers from carrying laptops, tablets and other large electronic devices into cabins needs to be viewed from the perspective of intelligence warnings. As terrorists are apparently aiming to hide explosives in such common devices, these will have to be checked in. The ban excludes regular-sized cellphones; and, initially at least, the restrictions apply only to certain airports in the Middle East, Turkey and North Africa. The measure, which other countries are contemplating, is bound to inconvenience travellers taking long flights, as many use their personal digital devices to do work or entertain themselves in the air.

Passengers will see the move in the light of the changing reality of air travel, which has become more taxing after the terrorist attacks in the US in 2001. Terrorists have sought to transform everyday items of peaceful use, from liquids and scissors to the very shoes that people wear, into insidious weapons of airborne warfare. Their nefarious ambitions have attracted the preventive attention of states. At each step of a journey without imminent end, countries have responded by curbing what passengers can carry into cabins, and in what quantities. Clearly then, technologically more sophisticated gadgets, such as electronic devices, must be subjected to keener official scrutiny since terrorists are bound to seek ways of harnessing their destructive potential.

Yet, the move raises pertinent questions. Many will ask why it is being implemented now, given that it was in February 2016 that an explosive device in a laptop created a hole in a Somali passenger jet which led to an emergency landing. Was it necessary to wait till a US raid on Al-Qaeda targets in Yemen in January reportedly found that the terrorist group had developed compact battery bombs? These could fit inside laptops or other devices and were strong enough to bring an aircraft down once they were triggered. That being the case, why allow the devices to be checked in?

The selective targeting of airports might well reduce the threat to airlines from their proximity to arenas of conflict. Determined terrorists, however, would simply shift targets in response. Thus, only a concerted effort involving all airlines and all airports could hope to be effective. There is also a possibility that some international travellers might treat the measure as but another discriminatory practice initiated by US President Donald Trump, after his travel ban on certain groups of people.

While security must come first in air travel and inconveniences ought to be tolerated for the sake of safe passage, there is also a critical need for international authorities to work together closely. Some measures might appear half-baked if they are enforced in only some areas and not others. Global cooperation is vital to thwart terror.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 27, 2017, with the headline 'Air security matters, so does efficacy'. Print Edition | Subscribe