Safe Waters: International Port Security
by Dave Marx, Author of PassPorter Travel Guides If we go on the basis of experience over the past century, large cruise ships in the Atlantic/Caribbean region are incredibly safe from hostile acts. I'm not familiar with any instance of piracy or terrorism involving the big ships in these waters during this period, and I don't think there have been acts of war since World War II.
There have been some isolated incidents in other parts of the world, so we know that it is possible. The Achille Lauro hijacking in 1985 is the only incident involving a mid-to-large size cruise ship that I'm familar with. Still, that was a much smaller ship (400 passengers and crew). Recent hostile acts against military and cargo ships have taken place in the Persian Gulf region. It's safe to say that that region is not a popular destination for cruise ships these days.
We can discuss the potential vulnurability of cruise ships to a variety of hostile acts, and speculate on the kind of resources and forces necessary to mount such acts, but for the most part, it would be outlining the plot of a work of fiction (like The Towering Inferno, Die Hard, Under Siege or The Poseidon Adventure). I'm not interested in spawning new Urban Legends.
Could a civilian ship be attacked in a manner similar to the U.S.S. Cole? We can certainly imagine it, but we don't have the knowledge or tools to calculate the real probabilities. That's the nature of terrorism. It leaves us guessing and in fear. That's one reason why the Coast Guard openly displays its vigilance by escorting ships out of port. It makes us all feel like someone is doing something.
Public displays of vigilance (baggage inspections, armed security guards, etc.) serve two primary purposes. They reassure the public, and they deter would-be attackers. However, in all likelihood, it's the security procedures that are not widely discussed in public and are invisible to the casual eye that are the most effective. For example, the same systems that were developed to track Soviet warships and aircraft worldwide during the Cold War are still around, as are the Caribbean-focused efforts to restrict drug smuggling. And these systems are more sophisticated than ever.
Worldwide, port authorities are quite aware of the possibility of terrorism, its effect on the safety of individuals and cargos, and its potential impact on the local economy. In many ways, until recently the U.S. lagged behind other developed nations in this regard. Worldwide, ports are routinely patrolled to defend against smuggling and ensure that health and immigration regulations are enforced. For years, the U.S. has helped fund these efforts as part of its anti-drug initiatives.
Anti-terrorism initiatives are simply added to existing precautions. For example, in Cozumel there's a Mexican coast guard station next to the cruise pier, staffed by several heavily-armed patrol boats. In Nassau, the Bahamian naval forces dock their largest vessels right next to the cruise ships. These overt shows of protective force are more common when the public feels insecure.
More than 40,000 Americans die in highway accidents every year, so as always, you'll be at far greater risk driving to the airport or sea port than you'll ever be once in the air or at sea. Over 16,000 of those deaths are attributable to a different kind of terrorist - the drunken driver.
As in the case of traffic safety, there are many steps taken to curb the likelihood of terrorist acts. As with traffic safety, none are likely to be 100% effective. The risk of terrorism is just one more risk we have to assimilate into our lives.
I think the important message now, as it was in the
darkest days following 9/11, is that we all have a choice. We can live our daily lives
normally, with the knowledge that there are always dangers and risks, whether we stay
within the comforting walls of our homes or venture out into the wider world. Or we can
let the terrorists win.