European Airport Security, Redux

I wrote recently about the fundamental disconnect between the “privacy versus security” trade-off that Americans are willing to make compared to Europeans when it comes to airport security. The matter at hand at the time was full-body scanners, but what I was trying to illustrate was the cultural divide between American and European perceptions of the urgency of airport security in particular and counterterrorism in general.

And I think this video from an Italian journalist at L’Espresso, hosted at Le Figaro’s Web site, does a good job of backing that up. According to the article accompanying the video, the reporter basically roamed freely through Rome’s Fiumicino airport — including areas with restricted access — because between the hours of 1-3 a.m., the airport “closes” and security is non-existent, even if many passengers remain in the terminal. I could be wrong, but I have a hard time imagining this sort of thing happening in a U.S. airport these days.

The same cultural divide extends to other aspects of U.S.-European joint counterterrorism efforts, such as a bank data-sharing program that the EU parliament is poised to cancel on privacy concerns. The U.S. has warned that canceling the program — which was already in operation but now requires parliament’s approval to continue post-Lisbon — will result in the U.S. seeking the same cooperation through bilateral agreements with member states, as opposed to through the EU.

This is, of course, a good example of how the U.S. can generally bypass the EU through bilateral agreements. But it’s also an example of how, when invasive counterterrorism initiatives are subjected to popular scrutiny — and consent — in Europe, the threshhold of privacy concerns is higher. For the U.S., the less-scrutinized bilateral option still exists. But it will very likely come with political costs for our European partners, and even more so as the range of post-9/11 joint efforts continues to come to light.