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.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

The world is indeed a crazy place, made even crazier by people who believe their perceived religious battles are more important than the lives of innocent people.
To Love, Honor and Dismay