Saturday, July 05, 2008

The costs that terrorism imposes on a society

On Tuesday, I joined a friend for a meeting on investment opportunities in Colombo’s version of the the Twin Towers, Sri Lanka’s World Trade Center. To reach the building we first had to park our car in a dusty parking lot - no tarmac. There was a long line of cars waiting to be inspected for bombs. which we had to transit before being being permitted to park. After parking, we walked through Sri Lanka’s once vibrant commercial area to our destination. The streets were entirely blocked off with barriers guarded by armed men. The stores where tourists and locals once strolled looking for crafts and bargains were closed. To approach the building, we had to pass through two airport-style security checks, one outside the building and another more rigorous one inside. Our meeting lasted an hour. Dealing with security upped our time by an additional 75 minutes. Who can count the costs of turning a vibrant commercial district into a sterile, security enforced wasteland? Who can measure the impact on prospective investor confidence of having to transit an area before meeting with government officials on a prospective business deal?

Late Friday night, I was conveyed to the airport, at 11 PM by a driver, ‘Pali’ who had worked with me during the momentous (for me) month that Paradise Poisoned saw the light of day as a published book. I had not seen him for two years but in the year we worked together, we had taken several long drives so it was good to catch up with him and his family. The tourist business is rough, but Pali is entrepreneurial and was enthusiastic in discussing other options he was considering to diversify his income.

There were new security arrangements at the airport, which involved long waits in line, with drivers jockeyng aggressively for position. At the airport entrance, baggage and passengers were screened electronically. The hand search of baggage had been eliminated. Subsequently there was a second search prior to entering the waiting lounge prior to boarding.

Enhanced security is providing gainful employment to many Sri Lankans, as it is to many Americans, but it is time consuming and costly. The terrorists may not be winning but in a developing nation, their ability to impose severe costs on those who travel and do business means that they certainly are not losing.

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