Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The last time I saw my eight-year-old daughter, she was being searched for explosives.

I peered down a short corridor into a security check area at Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 1 where “Ums” – unaccompanied minors – are corralled. I saw her walk through the metal detector, a little unsteadily, perhaps because she was afraid that the sparkly bits on her teeshirt might set it off, or perhaps because she felt vulnerable without her shoes, which were being X-rayed.

If I craned my neck, I could just glimpse my baby holding her arms stiffly and nervously out to the sides. An unseen adult was subjecting her clothing and body to a close inspection.

For who knows? I might have decided to stay at home in comfort on 10th August while sending my precious home-birth baby to a horrible death, by secreting plastic or liquid explosives into her hair bobbles or in the buttons on her little crocheted cardigan (the one with the bow on front, purchased specially for making a smart appearance at her best friend’s home in Finland).

Once again we can trust no one and nobody…or can we?

It was a miracle my daughter arrived in Finland – with her luggage. The young German girl I was also responsible for – yes, I had chosen 10 August to see off two youngsters on two different flights - got home to Hamburg but her luggage is still enjoying an extended holiday in Heathrow.

(How it feels to have the job of informing 150 German and British business men and women that their laptops, BlackBerrys, PDAs and mobile phones, not to mention all their clothes, will be in the tender care of Heathrow baggage handlers for an unspecified time, I don’t like to think.)

Media reports talked of delays and the inconvenience of hand baggage restrictions. They rarely mentioned the real issue: the baggage handling system collapsed under the pressure of a doubling in volume. Heathrow dealt with the problem by the peculiarly British strategy of putting up a marquee and serving tea and biscuits.

I am astonished at how many parents still seemed doggedly determined to take small children off on what were fated to be unbearably stressful holidays. “This is a funny old time to be up, isn’t it,” cooed one young mum to her sleepy six month old, at 5am in the Terminal 1 throng. The baby gave her a dark look.

Quite clearly, passenger profiling is part of the answer to making air travel safe. Enough moaning about the “racism” of the practice, or what the UK’s top Asian policeman huffily calls “inventing an offence of flying while Asian”.

This is about religion, not race. The national reluctance to admit the importance of religion is time-wasting and dangerous. It is deeply embedded in our secularised society: religion is something that we “just don’t talk about”.

If passenger profiling were in place, I would not mind if unlikely suspects like my daughter were also occasionally pulled out of the queue and gone over with a toothcomb. I mean, if you are planning to traffic drugs, or to bring down a planeload of people, you surely seek the least likely suspects to do the job. We should expect the next suicide bomber to be a middle-aged blonde woman carrying a briefcase and snaps of her kids. Or, a horrible thought, even with the kids in tow.

Passenger profiling should be more about spotting anomalies; about subjecting the recent convert to Islam to the kind of polite but insistent inquiry which my husband met as a student flying to Israel to work on a kibbutz. A non-Jew joining a kibbutz? Not suspicious, but sufficiently different to be interesting.

El Al has been passenger profiling for decades and should surely be the first authority to consult on the issue. Anyone flying El Al expects to be questioned and observed far more intelligently and consistently than can be done by the standard technology-dependent Heathrow body search. After 9/11 many people expected other airlines to copy El Al’s ruthless security policies: it hasn’t happened yet.

Which is why this particular blonde middle aged woman was allowed to hang around in Terminal 1 for hours at the height of the crisis, with a capacious bag, unsearched and unchallenged by any of the many armed police: and it is why, as soon as anything does happen, our fragile air system simply seizes up.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006


I have no doubt the bishops of England and Wales are always on the lookout for ways to improve their training in pastoral relations, so I offer an excellent field exercise for free.
It’s called the “No Alternative” or “Because We Do” scenario.

Take four children away for a weekend staying with friends in the country. Have a very jolly evening on Saturday night, perhaps slightly jollier than intended: “Another? Well, I’m not driving home...”

Forget completely about bedtimes, and eventually dispatch about a dozen exhausted children into various beds, sleeping bags and futons around the house, at around midnight.

Your mission, Your Grace: to get the whole lot of them to church next morning.

To add to the fun, you’re away from home and not 100% sure where the church is. We will deduct points for each minute you are late for Mass and you will lose a grade for each of “your” children whom you fail to bundle into the car…and out of it. Children posted in through the tailgate fast asleep in sleeping bags, and left outside the church, do not count as “active, conscious communicants”.

Now if all bishops in England and Wales were set this task once in their careers, they would never, never have even contemplated cutting back on Holy Days of Obligation.

Because – as Mr J and I were reminded forcefully last weekend, there is only one way in which this exercise can be accomplished.

“Why are we doing this?” wailed one groggy family member, surveying the red-eyed, tousle-haired, rag-tag-and-bobtail crew which emerged blinking into the sunlight outside a charming little Catholic chapel with one minute to spare on Sunday.

“Because we are Catholics and this is what we do,” Mr J. snapped back at me. “There is no alternative.”

The biggest difference visible to outsiders between the Catholic Church and the Church of England is not the clergy, not the liturgy, not the structure.

The biggest difference, and therefore the one most likely to be missed by people immersed in the ways of the Church, is that Catholics turn up. We go to church. We don’t just talk about it nostalgically or watch vaguely religious programmes on BBC1 as a substitute.

When I was an Anglican, I would wake up on a Sunday morning, and think “Hmm, shall I go to church today?”

As a Catholic, I wake up on a Sunday morning and think, “How are we going to make it to church today?”

From the very first minute that you are given permission to consider an act of worship optional, then from that moment onwards, dozens of other little obligations start to bob up their unsightly heads and cry out “Me too! I’m important too!”

And before you know it, the obligation to worship has been drowned in a sea of “must-do” items.

Time-management experts call it “controlling your diary” – the habit of independently establishing an absolute priority. It is very difficult to do this without an authority figure. Ask any writer who has tried to finish a book without a publisher or agent breathing over the shoulder.

People prioritise getting to work on time, because they don’t want to lose their job. Most children I know feel uncomfortable if they have not brushed their teeth, or washed their hands after going to the loo, because they have been drilled all their lives into doing it.

It is possible to raise children who feel uncomfortable, as adults, when a Sunday passes without worship. At the very least they ought to feel a twinge of guilt: “I have to make up for that somehow.” But to achieve even this level of commitment, an visible outside authority is essential. And, Your Graces, that means you.

Most Christian parents in the UK don’t go along with this. They would argue that a child raised in the “shall we go to church today?” ethos may become a fine young Christian and have more personal commitment to their faith than a child who has been “dragged along to church”. But these fine young Christians are a minority: they have held onto their faith despite, not because of, the absence of drilled-in habits.

The bishops would point out that they have no intention of doing away with the Sunday Mass obligation. What they don’t realise is that by raising the issue of HDOs at all, they have just made my life as a parent a little bit more difficult. To the keen legalistic eye of the average teenager, the principle has been established. Yesterday you said it mattered to go to Mass on Corpus Christi. Today you say it does not. Where will you stop?