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Dominic Lawson: Security is one thing, bullying another

The officer rang easyJet and told them not to allow my father on the plane, lying that he had 'not passed through security'

A novelist would regard it as too crudely ironic, yet these are the facts: the very day after the chairman of BA broke cover to denounce the "completely redundant" security checks to which his passengers are subjected, the security services discover ink cartridges rigged with explosives on board a cargo plane at East Midlands airport, en route to the US from Yemen.

Despite the fact that the booby-trapped cartridges were addressed to two synagogues in Chicago, David Cameron declared that the intention was for the explosive devices to be set off while in mid-air, allowing the more excitable newspapers to declare that this would have been "another Lockerbie". In such an atmosphere of fear, the BA chairman's demand that we stop "kowtowing to America" in imposing "redundant" security checks (such as those involving the scrutiny of passengers' footwear) seems doomed to be dismissed, even though it is objectively as reasonable a remark now as when he uttered it. I wouldn't dream of suggesting that the people denounced yesterday by Ryanair's Michael O'Leary as "the securocracy" are actually pleased by this development; no, the happier crew will be the bomb-makers themselves, because the disruption of Western lives and businesses through the implementation of ferocious security measures is a principal objective, which means that the mere discovery of a device with potential to kill is a strike in their favour: even their failures can be judged a success, as long as we in the West react disproportionately or, better still, hysterically.

The Prime Minister told the News of The World at the weekend that we "must not compromise with security". But we do, of course, and must. The only mass-murder successfully achieved by Islamist terrorists in the UK occurred not on an aeroplane but on the London Underground. Are we checked by scanners as we enter the Tube? Are even those wearing rucksacks required to show anyone their contents? No, and no. Why is this not done? Principally because if it became intolerably oppressive and time-consuming to negotiate the Underground network, London would be gridlocked and the economy of the region would experience something akin to a stroke. So, of course, a compromise is made with security.

There is a second reason why the security services are relatively relaxed about the fact that checks are not made on the Underground: they know that in reality such procedures are not the way in which devices – let alone plots – are detected. The discovery of the allegedly explosive ink cartridges was typical in that it was the result of prior work by an intelligence service, in this case the Saudi Arabian one, which tipped off the British and American authorities. So far as I am aware, there have been no al-Qa'ida explosive devices unearthed as a result of airport scanning checks: the "airline bomb" plot of August 2006 was absolutely characteristic in being uncovered at an earlier stage by the intelligence services.

The chances of detecting devices by random checks on the day of delivery are far lower than the long-suffering public may think. The US Transportation Security Administration each year runs dummy tests in the nation's biggest airports to measure the success of its scanners and security staff in detecting deliberately planted "devices". In its most recent report, it revealed that roughly 75 per cent of the fake bombs or component parts were not detected by any of the screening processes.

The paradoxical truth is that this vast, cumbersome and intrusive security operation is necessary not so much to protect the public as to persuade the public that it is being protected, so that the many economic and social benefits of mass air travel can continue to be enjoyed. Those who saw the film of Robert Harris's The Ghost might recall the angry peroration of the Blair figure, Adam Lang (played by Pierce Brosnan), when challenged about the infringements of civil liberties involved in the "security state": "Ask those peace-lovers who accuse me ... to load two separate planes, one with some terror suspects and the other with those who are not. And then ask them which plane they'd put their own bloody kids on." This was, of course, begging the question – putting the proposition in terms that assumed its own premise. Yet it also showed the politician's alertness to public neurosis: and we journalists who demand that government ministers take a detached and intellectually robust attitude to matters involving public safety have to accept that we are not the ones who must face the popular outrage (however much fomented by the red-top press) if people are blown up on a plane the week after security checks are stepped down.

If we are to continue with the present arrangements and ignore the pleas of BA's chairman, however, then at least we have a right to demand this: that the whole rigmarole is carried out pleasantly and in a civilised fashion.

This is by no means always the case, as illustrated by last week's story of how the X Factor contestants known as Jedward were regularly mocked by staff at Heathrow Airport (which they use three times a week to fly home to Dublin). The twins complained that they were continually pulled up for extra screening, for the amusement of the security officials; they finally made a formal complaint when a member of Heathrow's staff tried to force one of the twins to remove his trousers and the leg brace he wears to protect a broken ankle.

BAA has now emailed an apology to the twins, admitting that "nothing excuses the behaviour". One would very much like to have the official responsible named and identified, but that will never happen, a fact which became apparent to me after my father had a similarly unpleasant experience at Gatwick last year. He has a lot of trouble with his legs (which has involved surgery) and so complained that he could not take off his shoes, as demanded at the security check, unless a chair were provided. This was eventually done with such spectacular gracelessness that my father told the security officer, after all the scanning was completed, that his attitude was disgraceful. At this point a uniformed, more senior, officer emerged, demanded my father hand over his passport and, when he refused, rang ahead to the easyJet flight and told them not to allow my father on the plane, lying that he had "not passed through security".

Eventually my father managed to get on a later flight to his destination. When he wrote to BAA to complain about its staff's behaviour, he was immediately reimbursed his extra fare – an admission of improper behaviour, one would have thought – but then the company's response to his request to know the identity of the security officer, and whether or not the man had been reprimanded, was to say that this was not possible "because of the Data Protection Act". Isn't it priceless that people who act with such contempt for the freedoms of others can be so quick to hide behind civil liberties legislation in order to evade proper exposure?

Yet even if all such bullying behaviour were to cease, we would still have to put up with the tedium of security checks. So here is a simple suggestion to improve the public's mood: let the airport operators have some string quartets play for us as we queue. We could all do with some harmony to ease the stress of travel in the age of terror.