Register Wednesday | March 21 | 2018

The Soft Side of Security

My sandwich could have been a bomb.  More specifically, the hummus destined for my sandwich could have been a bomb, or so I was told at the Kelowna airport last fall.  The people at the security desk let me know that, even though I'd just bought the hummus and buns in anticipation of my airplane's long and foodless journey, my meals had to be assembled before they could be allowed on the plane.

That's when I was let in on one of the dirty secrets of the security world: nobody checks the inside of your sandwiches.  So I made some of those with my bomb-scare hummus, bagged them, and got on board.

The place you go to make hummus sandwiches in the airport is called the "soft side," in security lingo.  It's the zone you pass through between your ride and that place where everything is scanned and analyzed.  It's called "soft" for several reasons, chiefly because it is softly organized - a basically chaotic group of folks come and go constantly, and nobody knows who's who.  The other reason is more obvious: the soft side is a vulnerable area that is prone to attacks because it's impossible to secure such an area absolutely.

The existence of a "soft side" infers that once you cross the metal detector, and have your bag x-rayed, things harden up.  True enough, as any frequent flyer can attest; the innards of an airport are often wastelands of bland commercialism and Dubai-ist ultra-modern architecture.  I admit to feeling hardened walking about in these places.

The good news is that before you get scanned, it's ok to make all kinds of sandwiches in that softer side of any airport: peanut butter, jam, jelly, toothpaste or jell-o sandwiches, basically anything you want.  When between two slices of bread, liquids and gels no longer exist individually; they become one with the bread to form a sandwich.  Out in the soft side, the lines are blurred between food and explosives, terrorists and civilians; nobody claims to know exactly what is going on.

Safely back in Montreal, after many months and very few trips to the airport, I'd nearly forgotten about my hummus (I don't eat it that much any more); but seeing the horror and concurrent mayhem at Domodedovo airport on The New Yorker's blog, I was brought back to the feeling I had boarding a plane with gel-sandwiches.  What is the meaning of "airport security," and is it now an oxymoron? 

At the time I had been excited at getting around security checks with my food, but I was also worried.  Surely someone else has already thought about edible bombs! I started to wonder how much longer security checks can come to stand in for true security.  To me, the need for constant security checking has always seemed like an embarrassing show of security's lack, like the nervous hand-wringing of someone who doesn't know what to do next.

I went in search of answers.  There are plenty of posturing Russian authorities, 3D reconstructions and survivors' accounts, but reading more into the event has only left me more clueless.  I had been considering taking my sandwich-eating self to Moscow in the near future, should I think again? 

According to Stratfor, travelers should "minimize the time spent on the soft side of the airport," I suppose because these areas outside the security gates are common terrorist targets.  But how many people just like to hang out near the ticket counters, taking their time before they check in?  Most people who fly know that the amount of time they spend in these "soft" parts of airport security are arbitrary.  Nobody ever wants to be there, milling about with all their luggage, but there are times that circumstances prevail.

In pursuit of the terror-proof life, Stratfor's recommendations would have air-travelers internalize the airport's culture of security.  We would all blitz our way from the entrance to security, efficiently sorting how many minutes of danger we experience in the day.  In my mind though, the thought of people around me calculating risk and evaluating what potential threat I represent is terror itself.  

I suppose we all must pick our poisons.  Mine will be hummus, thanks.

Related on

—The Good Soldier
—Russia's Black Widows
The Sandwich Club

Subscribe — Follow Maisy on Twitter — Like Maisy on Facebook