We're here to protect you from all the terror.
June 24, 2008 12:16 PM   Subscribe

What's the point of armed police at airports and train stations?

So now we live in the age of terror and all, you often get armed police standing around aimlessly at airports and underground stations. I kind of wonder what the point of them is. Are their weapons loaded? Have they ever, anywhere in the world, been called upon to fire live rounds in public? I'm aware of Jean Charles de Menezes but in that instance the police were called onto the scene, and weren't already at the station. What sort of situation would require a man at a station or an airport to walk around with a big gun?
Or are they just a big bit of PR to keep us all feeling secure?
(Because they have the opposite effect on me.)
posted by greytape to Grab Bag (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Security Theater.
posted by selfnoise at 12:21 PM on June 24, 2008

I suspect some of it is "security theater" and some of it is just general prevention. If you know that there are men with big guns standing around, you're probably less likely to try and cause a ruckus there.
posted by proj at 12:25 PM on June 24, 2008

It's both security theater & a genuine response to things like the Rome & Vienna airport attacks. Whether it's an effective response is another matter, but some nations have had heavily-armed guys in their airports for quite a while now.
posted by aramaic at 12:29 PM on June 24, 2008

99% Security Theater.
posted by unixrat at 12:30 PM on June 24, 2008

I can't imagine any commercial enterprise as large as an airport not having some armed guards/cops walking around. Airports have equipment worth hundreds of millions of dollars on hand, millions of dollars in fuel, cargo, maybe millions in retail goods. I can't imagine owning, operating or insuring such an entity without at least a couple of rent-a-cops on hand with guns.
posted by bluejayk at 12:38 PM on June 24, 2008

blah, I sounded like a robot in that, messed up with a copy and paste. Meant to say: Airports have millions of dollars worth of equipment (planes), cargo, fuel, and retail goods on hand. They're huge commercial enterprises and frequent targets of theft. It's not all about saving us from terrorists, it's at least part about the owners protecting their property.
posted by bluejayk at 12:40 PM on June 24, 2008

Not everything is about terrorists. Areas with large numbers of transient people are by their nature attractive for all sorts of criminals -- pickpockets, luggage thieves, scam artists, etc. If you think bored looking guards carrying big guns make *you* nervous, imagine setting out to commit petty crimes when they're right there.

That said, the recent appearance of heavily armed people in American airports appears to be more about theater than anything else.
posted by tkolar at 12:46 PM on June 24, 2008

I'd agree with the assessment of security theatre - when you see armed uniformed men goose-stepping around the airport (common in South Korea, for example), or just standing about (increasingly common in US airports) the public is reassured that "something is being done". (To New Zealand-Canadian me, it's also as intimidating as hell).

But it's also a reaction to incidents like the Lod Airport Massacre, during the Bad Old Days of airliner terrorism. Terrorists aren't stupid: they recognize that increasingly tight security inspections (albeit still poorly implemented and scattershot) and the fact that any aggressive behavior on a plane will result in the assailant being dogpiled by passengers (as the assumption is no longer hijacking-with-the-possibility-of-rescue-or-release, but death for everyone on the plane) makes the terminal before security checkpoints, where travelers are increasingly forced into long, static queues by the security process, now the weakest and most easily targeted link. Thus, the guards.
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul at 12:47 PM on June 24, 2008

For what it's worth, my first memory of such people is not post-9/11. It's from the early 80s in Europe, and at that point it may have made some sense, seeing as the terrorists of the time valued their own lives.

That said, it seems like a ludicrously silly thing to do, if one believes that they're fighting a happily suicidal foe, and as such seems like an outdated and pointless response, likely made because they want to be seen as "doing something", even if the public "something" doesn't make a lot of sense to the more analytical portions of the masses.
posted by Project F at 12:53 PM on June 24, 2008

Have they ever, anywhere in the world, been called upon to fire live rounds in public?

April 1994:
"A man with a revolver shot and wounded two unarmed airport security guards today after shoving his way through a metal detector at a passenger boarding area, then was shot and killed by the police."
July 2002:
"A gunman opened fire Thursday at Los Angeles International Airport while standing in line at the ticket counter of Israel's El Al Airlines, officials said, killing two and wounding four others before an airline security officer shot him dead."
December 2005:
"A man who claimed to have a bomb on board an American Airlines plane in Miami has been shot dead in airport bridge by US air marshals, officials say."
April 2006:
"A man who shot a patrolman at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport yesterday was killed by another officer."
posted by ericb at 12:54 PM on June 24, 2008 [3 favorites]

April 1994 link.
posted by ericb at 12:57 PM on June 24, 2008

At least in the US, a lot of it is follow up from the North Hollywood shootout (1997). It was a few years later and just down the street from the San Diego tank rampage (1995) so a picture of the police not being adequately armed was emerging. Things changed after that with a general push of heavy weaponry beyond SWAT teams but often hidden in their patrol cars and the like. I didn't actually notice a change to patrolling with those weapons in the clear until after the bulldozer in Colorado in 2004. By then I think it was just incredibly obvious the impetus to stop these things was well before they got started, be it security theater or at least a well placed officer with a weapon capable of shooting one of these people well before all the bedlam, such as El Al's posting of a guard (soldier?) on all flights armed with a machine gun, guarding the cockpit door.
posted by jwells at 1:04 PM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

bluejayk, how often do you think people steal things from airports aside from luggage? You seem to know it's widespread, I just hadn't heard of this before. The fact that the equipment is expensive does not automatically mean it's vulnerable to theft, much less that armed guards would deter whatever kind of heist would be necessary to make off with a plane or a tanker of jet fuel.

Ever see 'Goodfellas'?

Keep in mind how much commercial cargo is a part of airport traffic. It's not just people and their bags. Anyplace that is an import/export spot for goods is going to attract thieves. Yeah, you're right that planes seem like a really unlikely thing to steal, but if there really weren't any armed guards.. I just can't imagine having literally a billion dollar worth of equipment (a single 747 can be more than $100 million) and no one around to watch it. I don't think any business would allow that.

Now I'm not disagreeing with the security theater stuff, or that most passenger screening activity is bullshit, but I do think there's a solid business reason for a lot of the security guys standing around.
posted by bluejayk at 1:12 PM on June 24, 2008

It's not all about saving us from terrorists, it's at least part about the owners protecting their property.

That doesn't wash in the UK. We have had armed police in the airports for years - way before 9/11* and the only people allowed firearms in the UK are the armed forces and the police. No property protection there. So in the US, it may be security theatre, but in the rest of the world it is the result of hard learned lessons, I suspect. The consequences of an incident are extremely severe, so the response is prepared accordingly, is my understanding. There have been a significant number of hijacks that have required armed responses over the years, and so to have to ship the trained people in from their barracks when required may just waste precious time.

*we (and many, many other countries) have been having terrorist attacks for many years before that (like 20 years and more). I understand it was a bit of a wake up call for the US, but it is by no means when terrorist attacks started or even significantly increased. Quite the opposite, in fact. Also, your terrorist attack is not the only type that there is, you know. There's much more to it in the rest of the world. Have you heard of the IRA, for just one example? There is not just 'one type of terrorist' so to say "That said, it seems like a ludicrously silly thing to do, if one believes that they're fighting a happily suicidal foe, and as such seems like an outdated and pointless response" is enormously blinkered as a viewpoint.
posted by Brockles at 1:14 PM on June 24, 2008

December 27, 1985: Four gunmen belonging to the Abu Nidal Organization attacked the El Al and Trans World Airlines ticket counters at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci Airport with grenades and automatic rifles. Thirteen persons were killed and 75 were wounded before Italian police and Israeli security guards killed three of the gunmen and captured the fourth.


A car which was on fire has been driven at the main terminal building at Glasgow Airport.
Eyewitnesses have described a Jeep Cherokee being driven at speed towards the building with flames coming out from underneath. They have also described seeing two Asian men, one of whom was on fire, who had been in it. Strathclyde Police said two people had been arrested and detained in connection with the incident.


Maybe armed police can stop an instant replay of things like this.
posted by 543DoublePlay at 1:15 PM on June 24, 2008

Not all criminals are alqeada suicide bombers. Considering how packed airports are and how high tensions run then I think it becomes pretty obvious why you would want an armed police officer there, especially if there are armed everywhere else. Airports are like mini-cities. Its incredible theyre as orderly as they are.
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:43 PM on June 24, 2008

Side arms on security is one thing, but the Guard/Reserve folks with M16s are there for theater. You also should consider that the type of person who goes into airport security needs a phallic tool at hand.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 2:08 PM on June 24, 2008

Again, British Police have had MP5's for years, so I'm not buying the security theatre line outside the US one little bit. This is not necessarily just about the US, you know. Odd though that idea can be...
posted by Brockles at 2:11 PM on June 24, 2008

El Al's security is not security theater, as is noted above. El Al is very serious about security and brings its own (heavily armed) security with it in each airport that it operates out of. They have plainclothes and tactical looking guys, and get all kinds of permission to be, for example, *on top* of the check-in counters (the stand alone ones often seen in international terminals).

Yes it makes me feel better.
posted by zpousman at 3:27 PM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

In CDG they stand on the jetway as you board and frisk you. So I guess it's audience participation theater.
posted by Zambrano at 3:59 PM on June 24, 2008

I think that transportation hubs have been staffed by armed guards since people started gathering around crossroads to trade grubs for leaves.

You can bet that Roman ports were crawling with soldiers armed with whatever their latest high-tech weaponry was.
posted by gyusan at 4:20 PM on June 24, 2008

Echoing selfnoise, with an addition: Security Theater x Class Conflict / Fear Culture (Risk Society) = Social Control ± Neurosis (in the Jungian sense.)
posted by Minus215Cee at 5:33 PM on June 24, 2008 [1 favorite]

Prior to 9/11, the armed security wasn't so visible. They were there, you'd even occasionally see a police officer walking through the airport, at least in Dallas, Chicago, and my home airport, where I specifically remember them.

After 9/11 they got much more in your face, as did the screeners' attitude. In Dallas for a long time they had National Guard soldiers toting M16s at every checkpoint and wandering around the airport. It was beyond ridiculous.

Anyway, based on my purely US travel, it was rare, but you might well see a cop with a pistol wandering through the airport before 9/11. For a long while afterwards, you were almost guaranteed to see multiple officers with pistols, probably one or two with dogs, and one or more National Guard soldiers in fatigues with a rifle and sidearm. Thankfully things have calmed down. I didn't see a single armed officer in any of the airports I most recently flew through. (pure dumb luck, that..I'm sure there were some Chicago PD officers at O'Hare, but a few years ago I would have been certain to see one)

And yes, I don't like having a bunch of guys with guns wandering around the airports. And I'm not at all anti-gun. The 20 year old guys with automatic weapons do make me uncomfortable, though.
posted by wierdo at 5:34 PM on June 24, 2008

Prior to 9/11, the armed security wasn't so visible.

Again, that is an entirely US-centric viewpoint. There is clearly two different questions here - why there are armed people at airports, and why the armed people at US airports are quite so prolific and blessed with a bad attitude...
posted by Brockles at 7:49 PM on June 24, 2008

You also should consider that the type of person who goes into airport security needs a phallic tool at hand.

Really? See, I thought it might be the kind of person who needs a job with a good salary ($83,000 a year before overtime and holiday pay), health insurance, a pension (a real pension, as in a defined benefit plan, like they used to have in the old days in the US) and the flexible hours often needed for child care or a second job.
posted by mlis at 8:07 PM on June 24, 2008

In some parts of Eastern Europe that I've visited (Moldova, Ukraine and Romania) the presence of an armed deterrent to theft is much more prevalent in stores, airports and train stations.

After being frisked or asked to set my bags aside when entering a mall or grocery ALL THE TIME in Moldova, seeing a couple of national guards or cops with automatics in Cleveland Hopkins "International" Airport doesn't seem too bad.
posted by vkxmai at 8:09 PM on June 24, 2008

It's from the early 80s in Europe

Absolutely. My personal closest encounter with a semi-automatic weapon to date was in 1986 at Amsterdam Schiphol. We weren't allowed off the plane, and guards (one female) with machine guns entered the back of the plane and swept the aisles through to the front so they could be behind the passengers getting off there. Damn thing went right past my nose.

Then in Copenhagen on the way back they made my mother remove her camera lens. It seemed ridiculously over the top at the time.

Yes, this was within six or seven months of the Abu Nidal attack noted above, so I have no idea if it continued. But one got the impression that the Dutch approach to security was to be faster than the other guy being chased by the bear. All the other guys.
posted by dhartung at 8:18 PM on June 24, 2008

Actually the one I'll never forget is driving through a toll booth in central Mexico in the late 90s and seeing a soldier armed with a machine gun guarding every toll booth. It was to stop the Zapatistas. Later in the trip a party I was at got broken up by the policia but the federali were there too, same soldiers with machine guns. I figured we'd really screwed up and were headed for jail but none of the Mexicans even looked concerned. Turns out they brought the federali out for a noise complaint. We were asked to disperse and that's it. Later I found out it was routine because they routinely are met by drug runners or the Zapatistas. The week prior they'd done a similar job but were met by a guy with an Uzi.
posted by jwells at 4:33 AM on June 25, 2008

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