I spent last week traveling with my family throughout London and Paris, and our itinerary gave me plenty of opportunity to experience the heightened security measures in place at many of the more popular attractions in each city. ISIS strikes once every 84 hours in Europe according to a recent estimate, so it’s only natural that British and French governments have responded, though each has done so in a different way. Are their respective responses effective, or is the whole thing just security theater?
Security Theater in the US
Anyone who has traveled in the US is familiar with security theater. These are the various levels of inconvenience we must go through to enter airports, stadiums, museums, and other points of interest. We must remove jackets, belts, and shoes. We must separate laptops from briefcases. We must also leave any item that could be construed as a weapon at home, including something as innocuous as a metal LED flashlight (e.g., Elzetta Alpha). These inconveniences are labeled “security checks” but in reality, each is just a big show so that the government can pretend it is protecting us, and we can pretend we are protected.
We know this is all pretend from the statistics that were leaked from an audit of the TSA, the department in charge of performing the most invasive of these checks. Even with advanced baggage X-ray, body scanners, explosives sniffers and invasive pat downs, agents failed to identify test weapons and explosives in 67 out of 70 red team tests. Additionally, many passengers have anonymously published photos of them holding various weapons on airplanes. Famously, Adam Savage from the TV show Mythbusters even got two 12″ razors hidden in his clothing past the body scanner after forgetting to remove them.
If the TSA cannot prevent weapons and test explosives from passing through their checkpoints with all of their scanning equipment and authority to perform extensive physical searches, any check consisting of less invasive means has no chance at all. Such were the checks I experienced throughout London and Paris.
My Experience in London and Paris
I encountered many more security checks in London and Paris than my recent trip to Washington, DC- probably the most secure major city in the US. They were at every major attraction (e.g., the London Eye, Windsor Castle, the Louvre). They also existed in some shopping areas and even occasionally before entering our Paris hotel.
Most of the time, security checks involved someone of unknown training or authority simply peeking at your open bag. No effort was made to move anything to see below the top layer, nor did anyone attempt to inspect any but the largest compartment on any of our bags. However, this meant that lines were minimal with little time required to pass through the check.
Metal detectors and wands were used, as well, but they were either malfunctioning or tuned to detect only large amounts of metal. An iPhone, keys, coins, and a large metal pen all remained in my pockets as I passed through the arches with no trigger whatsoever. Once, I noticed the power cord wasn’t even plugged in- I’ve looked for that ever since noticing the same thing when entering one of the buildings in the Smithsonian.
Good Guys and Gals with Guns
Good guys and gals with guns were definitely present throughout London and Paris. In London, police provided the bulk of the security and were armed with a variety of long arms. The most prevalent was the HK MP7, with the MP5 a close second. Police surrounding Buckingham Palace also had several different 556 caliber rifles.
I had read that London police are only issued semi-automatic firearms, and this was repeated by a viewer in law enforcement in the UK. Sure enough, when I was close enough to see the selector on the MP7s and MP5s, semi and safe were the only pictograms shown.
MP7s were configured with Aimpoints and a Streamlight TLR weapon light, most often loaded with the short mag that remains flush to the bottom of the grip. Officers likely had spare mags, but they were not easily seen.
Officers armed with MP5s had full capacity mags with at least one spare mag in a front mag pouch. I saw several variants of the MP5 in use, but all had Eotech sights. Weapon lights varied- some were lucky enough to have the Surefire integrated forend lights. Several had no weapon light at all.
Despite that, every one of them was a good guy (I saw no female officers armed this way) with a gun making himself a target to protect us.
In Paris, the largest security presence was military. The French soldiers may have worn berets on their heads, but they each had a helmet clipped to a belt. They traveled in teams of three, often mixed male and female. They were all young and fit, carrying themselves with the posture and expression of soldiers taking their jobs very seriously.
These teams were everywhere we went. Of course, we were tourists going to tourist spots, but we never went for more than a few minutes without at least one team of French soldiers walking by, even inside the Louvre.
I only saw one French law enforcement officer armed with something other than a pistol. This officer was not athletic and spent much of his time chatting with another officer and a tourist. He didn’t even have a magazine loaded into his Beretta M12 submachine gun. For all I know he could be an absolute SMG Olympian, but his lack of attention to the crowds combined with an unloaded weapon left me wondering if he wasn’t on some sort of remedial duty. He provided a stark contrast to the demeanor of both French soldiers and British law enforcement that I encountered.
Guns Can’t Protect Everything
That said, only once in my travels did I feel particularly unnerved, and no amount of armament would’ve made a difference. I don’t want to give out a recipe to terrorists, but in one popular area of my travels, the layout and crowd density was particularly conducive to facilitating mass casualties from either gunfire or an IED. With no obvious security forces present at this location, I am left wondering if that itself was an intentional tactic to avoid drawing attention to the opportunity for bad people to do harm.
Regardless, my family made life long memories on this trip, and we’d have none of them if we let fear dictate our itinerary as so many of our friends would’ve had us do.