Monday, March 19, 2007

Airport security: enough to turn one to drink

Recently, when I checked into the newly renamed George Best Belfast City Airport, I was asked if I was carrying any liquids. I found myself gagging as I suppressed a giggle. Attempts at humour in airports these days are enough to leave you sun-tanning in an orange jumpsuit in Guantanamo Bay. Further, my snigger was in bad taste. Not everyone would see the funny side of the question, least of all the footballing legend George Best, who had a serious drink problem. Security these days is, of course, no laughing matter. There are genuine threats. To this end, I do not mind security procedures. But I want them to be logical, make me feel safer and minimise disruption. But, frankly, security officials at some airports seem to be making procedures up as they go along.

When travelling to the US recently with my wife and child, we had to taste six jars of baby food and four baby bottles at Belfast International Airport prior to departure. Our child’s teething gel was confiscated, his nappy rash lotion, and my wife’s hand cream, presumably a precaution against passengers making a bomb as a desperate measure to cope with a cranky child on a long-haul flight. On the way back, the US authorities let the teething gel, baby food, nappy rash lotion and hand cream through without a word, but refused to allow us to take the sterilised water through in the baby’s bottles. However, they were appeased when we mixed the powered formula into the bottles, although no tasting was required. When my wife explained that we had been able to carry the water through on the way there, the security guard replied: “This is the US”, as if we did not know that. I know that different jurisdictions probably have different rules. But, surely, if someone knew what was going on, there would be uniformity. Could the same security officials who thought there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq be those deciding what is hazardous on aeroplanes? Alternatively, the plan is to make the procedures so confusing that they leave would-be bombers so perplexed that they choose another mode of transport.

I know I should not make light of this important issue, and people have suffered as a result of security failures and misdirected acts of aggression, but questions have to be asked. According to airport authorities, the new security procedures have put an enormous weight on their shoulders, thus creating the mayhem.

The UK government, in turn, asks commuters for patience because it is the nasty terrorists who are the problem, not security officials. They revel in pointing out that the 9/11 attacks preceded the Iraq war. But other airports, such as those in Germany or Spain, countries which do not have troops in Iraq, are not in turmoil.

So there is a dual problem. Firstly, there is the denial in the UK that the Iraq invasion is related to the security situation at airports. Secondly, from my travels through a number of airports, there is ample evidence that suggests that no-one knows what he or she is doing. Cumulatively, this makes me feel a lot more insecure than before.

I understand this is a difficult time. But, as with this entire debacle of this so-called and amorphous ‘war on terror’, something is amiss and this involves ordinary people. Indiscriminate acts of terror against civilians, failure to listen to ordinary people opposed to the Iraq war, bombing civilians in Iraq who bear no relation to the original ‘war on terror’, and now forcing people through chaotic security systems, all add up to the same thing – we mere mortals are cannon fodder. We are caught in the cross-fire between a bunch of men who think they are all-powerful. It really winds me up and now I really need a drink.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity. Copyright Brandon Hamber, November 2006. "Look South" Column published on Polity on 3 November 2006.