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Portside sea

Tides of Steel

A look at the movement of containers

The time-and space-shrinking capacity of the freight container has radically stimulated global interconnectedness. It has also raised some significant global security issues. These pertain particularly to the global tracking of freight containers and their contents. Most evident in this regard is the container’s ability to aid illicit global actors—particularly terrorists—in the transport of highly dangerous materials, such as nuclear weapons, into any one of the world’s sea- or airports. Just as the September 11, 2001 (9/11), terrorists commandeered the global air network, they could also infiltrate and utilize shipping containers in order to mount equally or even more devastating attacks.

The possibility of a single container going purposefully astray packed with explosives or loaded with a virulent biological weapon is not a fictional scenario but a real contemporary possibility. The circuitous nature of container routing offers innumerable opportunities for container security to be compromised. For example, a ship may start out at Port Klang in Malaysia with containers filled with furniture. It may then pass through Indonesia where it picks up textiles. It may then sail to Mumbai to load pharmaceuticals; to Jebel Ali Port to take on board a United Arab Emirates (UAE) crew; to Gioia Tauro where it stops for fuel; and thence to the Port of Algeciras where it picks up ceramics. Its penultimate stop might be Le Havre, where it is packed with plastics. It may then set sail finally for Norfolk, Virginia.

The size and complexity of the shipping industry is manifest when we consider that it is composed of approximately 115,000 merchant vessels, 6,500 ports and harbor facilities, and 45,000 shipping bureaus. These link roughly 225 coastal nations, dependent territories and island states. Within this labyrinth some 250 million shipping movements, all using homogenous freight containers, occur annually.

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