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Terrorist Threats – What security measures are we prepared to live with?

Terrorism-ThreatsDuring an interview on 2GB recently, I was asked what security measures should be implemented in shopping centres following the Westfield terrorist threat.

It is a difficult question to answer because to properly advise Westfield or any other organisation about counter-terrorism specific security practices, you first need to qualify the level of risk.

And when we say risk, we are really talking about the likelihood of a terrorist incident occurring.

How seriously do we take a threat from a recognised international terrorist group with a history of attacks on shopping centres? And how much inconvenience are visitors to these shopping centres prepared to put up with to ensure their own safety and that of others?

In the US where similar threats to shopping centres were also made, the US Homeland Security Secretary warned shoppers to be particularly careful.

In Australia we appear to be far more relaxed which I suspect is because we are yet to experience a really serious terror incident on home soil.  This is not to say that what happened in Martin Place was not serious, just in world terms it was relatively minor.

There also seems to be a perception that our location at the bottom of the globe tends to help protect us from these types of incidents.

From my experience studying security practices overseas, bag checks, metal detectors and a heavy security presence is part and parcel of daily life. In Australia, outside of airports, we are not used to such intrusions.

We accept a high level of scrutiny when boarding a plane. Would we be as accepting of these same security practices when walking into a department store?

The level of security associated with aviation travel escalated in Australia enormously as a result of 911. This occurred even though we were yet to experience an aviation related terrorist incident.

Yet we accept the risk is real and that security checks and the associated queues while inconvenient, exist for our own safety. We accept this because we have all seen the resultant devastation that occurred that day.

The likelihood of a plane being hijacked in Australia has always had a low level of probability. With the increased security measures in place, the level of probability is degrees lower again.  This is a good thing. We need to know we are safe when travelling at 800 kilometres an hour, 9 kilometres above the earth.

Heightening the security measures in popular everyday public spaces such as shopping centres has far greater social consequences, and not just in terms of inconvenience to centre visitors.

Unnecessary security measures have the potential to impact our society sociologically and psychologically. What does it say about Australia as a safe place to raise our families if we need to implement security measures that are more typical of European and Middle Eastern nations?

If the risk to our shopping centres is inherently low because the likelihood of an incident occurring is regarded as unlikely, does the risk actually exist or not? Or, do we accept that the threat is credible and take action?

In airline travel, security measures such as bag scanning and metal and explosives detection were forced upon us and we have accepted it as part of the flying experience. In fact if they weren’t there, I imagine there would be a degree of anxiety with many travellers.

Heading up to your closest shopping centre is a far different experience with a different set of expectations and ultimately, consumers want choice.  Choice about how we shop, where we shop and what we are prepared to sacrifice to be able to do an everyday activity without compromising our freedom and way of life.

I suspect that daily life will mostly go on unchanged locally until the real likelihood of an incident can be better qualified.

That said, If we have learnt anything from local and overseas incidents, it is that any prior warning of an incident occurring is also unlikely.

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