Are these Olympics secure enough?

BEIJING — Three security guards are probing my computer bag. They seem very serious about their work.

Together, they go over the bag like surgeons during a heart operation, six gloved hands simultaneously unzipping and probing as they go. One pulls out a tape recorder and turns it over as if to make certain it is what it appears to be. Another carefully fishes a granola bar out of the bag and looks at it grimly, as if it is some sort of mysterious substance that should be handled with forceps.

No, this was not at the security gate outside the Olympic stadium.

This was at my hotel door as I left for the morning.

Around Beijing, the security force is as obvious as a flexed muscle. Every few hundred yards, you can see soldiers, often standing at attention. Police squad cars drive with their flashers on. On the subway there are older women with red armbands, the Chinese version of the Guardian Angels.

Oh, and near the Bird's Nest stadium, there is a surface-to-air missile.

And still, you wonder: Is it enough?

Anymore, security is as big a part of the Olympics as the athletes and the anthems. The Olympic creed used to be Higher, Faster, Stronger. These days, you can add "Safer?"

After Monday's grenade attack that killed 16 policemen in the Chinese province of Xinjiang (2,100 miles away), it seems like a fair question: Are these Olympics secure enough? After all, many of the world's leaders, including the U.S. president, are scheduled to attend Friday night's opening ceremony.

There is another reason to wonder. For these Olympics, China spent a fraction (a reported $300-million) of the $1.5-billion that Greece spent on security for the last Summer Olympics. Does that mean the athletes are proportionately less secure? Or was Athens a bigger target back then? Either way, it is easy to be insecure about security.

Consider Wednesday's minicontroversy. Four protesters were able to hang a sign near the Bird's Nest that said "One World. One Dream. Free Tibet.'' And if protesters can elude security, is it possible that someone with a more sinister notion can do the same?

A confession here: Coming into China, I was braced for a much more overbearing security force. Because of the red tape involved when I was considering bringing a second computer, I half expected a security force that would examine my bags closely enough to count my socks. But there has been little of that. The media hotels are lined with yellow caution tape, but once inside, one journalist had a security guard carry a bag for him.

Of course, achieving the proper balance between protection and intimidation is difficult.

Take Wednesday afternoon, when two boyish-looking soldiers stood in the broiling afternoon on a street corner outside the International Broadcast Center. Unlike the Forbidden City security guards, who wear handguns, these guards were not armed; nor did they look particularly protective. More than anything, they looked like a pair of Junior ROTC students.

A few yards away, journalists were walking into the center without their bags being checked. This is why they check at the hotels. Call it the Great Wall of Security. The logic is that the guards will check you thoroughly once, and after that, you are in their control and will not be checked again.

It is a contrast with the approach of the past few Olympics, held in the aftermath of the 1996 Centennial Park bombings in Atlanta and the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States. At those Olympics, journalists were often screened repeatedly throughout a day.

Yet, the extra security did not always come without silliness. In Athens, for instance, our media village had armed guards, but they often sat playing cards, barely glancing at who came or went.

At Salt Lake City in 2002, a soldier once grabbed my cell phone and started to turn it on. He turned to a fellow soldier and said, "What happens if it blows up?" And the other guard, speaking as the voice of reason, answered "Point it toward the ground." As if that would protect everyone.

And this time?

Yes, it feels secure enough. Then again, Atlanta felt perfectly safe, too. That's the thing about security. You never know how much you have until you find out you don't have enough.

Does China have enough? Let's hope so.

Are these Olympics secure enough? 08/06/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 7, 2008 7:15am]

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