We're creating death traps in the name of security

Friday May 13 2016

By MUTHONI THANG'WA
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I like the notion by Walter Morsley, the American crime bestselling author of Devil in a Blue Dress, that freedom is a state of mind.  He thinks that the body cannot know complete freedom, but the mind can!

Though the risk of locally based, internationally driven terrorism remains real, creating physical barricades around us gives terrorists the impression that they have won the battle of the mind. This is where they would like us all to be, I suppose.

When Westgate was attacked by terrorists on September 21 2013, I was away having lunch with my family in mashambani, and my phone was just not uppermost in my mind at the time. When I remembered it around 2pm, I had 38 missed calls and I knew there was a fire somewhere.

Many of my friends and colleagues wanted to know if I was at Westgate. Yes! I was a sucker for the beauty of Westgate and I bought everything there, from milk to a matchbox. But the appeal was in the beautiful spaces of the mall with the airy, open courtyard design that created the impression of all the floors being one space, the bright light, the appealing stores and artistic decor.

Today I cannot bear to be near that mall, or should I say fortress? It is grilled, barricaded and looks and feels like a black matchbox with peep holes. What is the point?

Terrorism remains a real threat for most nations, including Kenya. but I am not sure just what roles metal grills play in the prevention of terrorism, except perhaps to create death traps for the innocent lives that seem to be the permanent target of this atrocious acts.

Yaya Centre, I hear, is another fortress, and now Prestige has taken on the metal grill approach. Is this what responding with "full force" means?

THE MOST INEFFECTVE PLAN

The question of freedom is two-pronged, freedom from and freedom to! Barricades will not free us from terrorism, yet they are a great hindrance to our freedom to escape in the event of natural and manmade disasters.

If there was a fire at Westgate, the stampede at those peepholes they assume are exits would be lethal. If it all caved in during an earthquake, the weight of the grills would probably be a big contributor to the deaths.

If terrorists attacked again – touch wood – the opportunity to escape would be reduced rather than expanded.

No single business entity can provide all protection or invest in every solution to guard against terrorism. But an appropriate security plan may be the most important aspect of protection at personal, business, social or even national level.

For instance, the United Kingdom’s strategy on counterterrorism is based on four key elements according to the Home Office: pursue, prevent, protect and prepare.  Barriers are a very small element of the protective aspect of a security plan, whose most important elements, in my opinion, are personal and information security.

The UK plan advises businesses to have a plan that protects the most important asset. Something tells me that grills are not a strategy that may think of humans as the most important asset in a mall. Yet without the human element, businesses are nothing. 

The strategy also states that one of the most ineffective plans anyone can develop is that which is based on past mistakes and errors. A plan needs to be futuristic and integrated.

A NICE PROFESSIONAL NOTE

I am not aware of any national strategy on terrorism that Kenya may have, but I continue to admire the diverse and surprising security measures used by the Department of Homeland Security in the United States.

First, there is the visa application process that is not for the faint-hearted and incorporates the identification of potential terrorists before they enter the US.

I like the fact that they open your luggage – and leave you a nice professional note that tells that they’ve been through your stuff for the sake of your security and that of other travellers.

It is non-intrusive since you are not even present. I have no idea at what point they identify the luggage to check through, but it makes one realise that there is a working plan in place. And you will not find a feather missing from your luggage.

The last time I exited the US, which has some of the most stringent checks anywhere, all passengers had to do was go past a lone dog! I love dogs so I had no problem, but I can imagine what anyone afraid of dogs felt.

It was the easiest security check I have ever been through at an airport. At the full-body scanners I was informed by a smiling young man that I did not need to remove my shoes or unpack my electronics since I had already been through a pre-check.

All passengers almost hugged him with gratitude. One cannot help but admire nations and businesses that have plans that do not involve restrictive or intrusive physical barriers.