Posnanski: What is the future of sports security?

Posnanski: What is the future of sports security?
April 22, 2013, 10:00 am
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About 20 years ago, I was in a shopping mall in Tel Aviv when there was a sudden commotion. I asked what was happening, and someone said that the mall was being locked down. There was a suspicious package outside and Israeli military was surrounding it, handling it, detonating it under a cover.

Of course, I was pretty nervous about the whole thing — it was the first time I had ever been around a potential terrorist threat. But as I looked around, I found something extraordinary: Nobody else seemed to be nervous at all.

Instead, the people were … well … kind of ticked off that they had to wait for this whole suspicious package thing to be cleared up. People were stomping around, grumbling and looking at their watches every three seconds. Some were actually shouting at the soldiers through the glass doors.

What are they yelling?” I asked.

“Hurry up,” I was told.

I told someone how odd this all seemed to me as an American — this was before 9/11, back when you didn’t have take off your belt or put your shampoo in plastic bags before boarding a flight — and she shrugged and said: “We deal with this all the time. Don’t worry. It’s almost always a false alarm. That’s why people are so ready for it be over. … It’s just a different life. In America you have other things. You have crime. We don’t have violent crime here. You learn to live with what you have.”

I have been thinking about that mall a lot since the bombing at the Boston Marathon. The scene in Boston was both awful and inspiring — suffering and courage blending together, the worst of mankind and also the best in one place — but, perhaps more than anything, it was just so unfamiliar.

“I don’t want to minimize what happened on Monday, because that would be a terrible thing to do,” said Jeff Lanza, a former special agent for the FBI who now speaks around the country about security. “But it’s important to remember that this type of thing is extremely rare in the United States. … Chances of being a victim are extremely small.”

We were talking about security at sporting events. As Golden State basketball coach Mark Jackson said: “It’s something you always think about.” Ever since 9/11, when you go to a baseball game or a hockey game or a big time college game, you will go through a metal detector. You will have your bag searched. Fans have largely grown accustomed to it … and so something like the scene that I witness in that Israeli mall all those years ago I now see at Madison Square Garden or Kauffman Stadium or the Rose Bowl — you know, people impatiently waiting in line to get through security, looking at their watches every three seconds.

But after the shock of Boston starts to fade, after some of the pieces are put back together, what will be the future of sports security?

“I think enclosed events, like in stadiums and arenas, shouldn’t be a problem,” Lanza said. “The real danger in those settings is someone bringing in some type of weapon, usually in a backpack. They are screening for that, so that should stop it, if they do their job.

“But,” he says, “in an outdoor venue – like a 26.2-mile marathon course – you cannot secure the entire area. It’s not even possible to do that. Like I say, this is an isolated incident so I don’t think people should be scared and not attend events they want to attend. I’m just saying from a physical security standpoint, it would be impossible to make it 100 percent safe at those type of events.”

So, he said, the question about sports security comes down to finding a very difficult balance: safety and security vs. convenience and ease of life. In Israel, because terrorism is a real threat, there hasn’t been much of a choice to make: safety trumps convenience. They shut down the mall for a suspicious package (the backpack by the mall turned out to be harmless). They searched people as they entered restaurants. At the airport, in security, they hounded us with many questions in an effort to trip us up (How many children do you have? What are their names? Where do they go to school? What grades are they in? How many children do you have? What languages do they speak? How many children do you have?).

Lanza: “People should be vigilant. The FBI has asked people to report suspicious people, suspicious vehicles, suspicious packages. So, absolutely, that makes good sense. … The truth is that in Boston — and again, I’m not trying to minimize the tragedy — but the way it seems right now, you really had a couple of nutcases who didn’t tell anybody what they were planning to do. That can happen anywhere at anytime. There’s not a lot you can do to stop that. The question is how much do you want to change your lifestyle in order to try and be safe. It’s really a tradeoff.”

He predicted that, for a while, the balance at American sporting events will swing toward tighter security. The lines entering stadiums and arenas might be a little longer. The security might be a little tighter. Lanza predicted people will endure that while the memory of Boston remains strong. But after a while, he said, people will remember that, thankfully, these events are rare in America. And the pendulum will swing back.

“There hasn’t been a successful terrorist act in the United States in 12 years,” he says. “The Boston bombing was terrible and tragic, but that is 12 years where nothing happened. There have been thousands and thousands of sporting events. Millions and millions of people have attended.

“If this was happening on a yearly basis, we might be having a different conversation,” he said. “Fortunately, it has not. I do think it’s very important to remember that.”