Joan Smith: What does this new offence of 'travelling while Asian' say about Britain today?

I suspect that the anger that was initially directed at the passengers contained an element of denial
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The Independent Online

After the July bombings in London last year, a man on the No 30 bus described how he had felt uneasy about one of the other passengers. The young Asian man was fiddling with a large rucksack and something about him worried the first man so much that he got off the bus. Not long afterwards, it exploded. No one suggested that the suspicious passenger was a racist or an Islamophobe, even though he was acting solely on an instinct for self-preservation. He didn't know Hasib Hussain and he had no hard evidence that the 18-year-old from Leeds was about to cause carnage with the home-made bomb concealed in his rucksack.

Earlier this week, when it emerged that two British Asian students had been removed from a Monarch flight from Malaga because other travellers were afraid to fly with them, there was an outcry. The anxious passengers were condemned as racists and the Malaga Two became heroes, victims of what has been satirically named the new offence of "travelling while Asian".

I can see why this has happened. Thirty years ago, there was a series of spectacular miscarriages of justice involving innocent Irish people who were wrongly arrested and convicted of terrorist offences. It took years to secure their release and the scandal left a permanent scar on the British judicial system.

What happened to the two students is different. By the men's own account, airline staff and the Spanish police were polite, if not apologetic; the two men were inconvenienced, but the worst that happened to them was having to travel on a later flight. It emerged later that their itinerary was unusual, to say the least - a day trip to Malaga which involved arriving in the evening and leaving in the early hours of the following morning - and they were forced to deny allegations that they had deliberately set up the incident.

I can't help suspecting that the anger that was initially directed towards their fellow passengers contained an element of denial, for who hasn't looked nervously at other people and their luggage in recent days? After being in Soho when a bomb exploded in 1999, killing three people, I went through a phase of checking that every visible bag in a bar or on a Tube train was attached to its owner. I didn't change my travelling habits after the July bombings last year but I am always alert to anything that might constitute suspicious behaviour.

Like most women, I've done this kind of "profiling" for years: every time I walk alone down a dark street and hear footsteps, I automatically turn round to check who's behind me. If it's a man, I cross the road, speed up, head towards the nearest lights - not because I think all men are rapists, but because I know that rapists are men of a certain age.

Of course I don't think all Muslims or Asians are terrorists, and it's clear from the conviction of Muslim converts such as the shoe-bomber Richard Reid that profiling based solely on race would be as ineffectual as it is unjust. The problem is that we do know some things about the terrorists currently targeting this country, chiefly the fact that they are inspired by al-Qa'ida, and Osama bin Laden's network is certainly not an equal-opportunity recruiter.

Hence the anxiety about young men who behave abnormally at airports, constantly checking their watches and drawing attention to themselves. The profile of the 7/7 bombers confirms a pattern in which adult males in their late teens or early 20s seem to be particularly susceptible to "martyrdom" operations, and the two entirely innocent students who aroused suspicion at Malaga airport were in this age group.

What happened to them is also a reflection of the fact that few of us trust airline security. It's obvious that airports have been caught out by the revelation of the alleged threat to blow up transatlantic planes and are struggling to counter the threat. It's absurd to suggest they should spread their stretched resources equally, interrogating five-year-old children and elderly Chinese men with as much vigour as young men.

In these uncertain circumstances, when we're not even sure what terrorists might be trying to smuggle on to planes, we all have to make imperfect decisions about who might or might not constitute a threat - just like that man on the No 30 bus. Clearly the passengers on the Monarch flight got it wrong on this occasion, but it doesn't make them racists or justify the opprobrium that's been heaped upon them.

Bring back old-style discretion

It's taken the boss of Tom Cruise's studio a long time to arrive at a conclusion most of us reached ages ago, which is that the actor is weird - too weird for Paramount Pictures. Sumner Redstone, chairman of Paramount's parent company Viacom, has accused Cruise of committing "creative suicide" after a year in which the star bounced on Oprah Winfrey's sofa and derided psychiatry as a "Nazi science".

Cruise's business partner, Paula Wagner, has gone on the offensive, insisting it was actually she and Cruise who walked out of negotiations with Paramount. What's odd about all this is that it's not as if Cruise has ever made a secret of his bizarre views or his commitment to Scientology, the only religion (as far as I know) to have been invented by a sci-fi writer.

The days when studios controlled their stars have long gone, consigned to history when astonished fans learned in 1985 that Hollywood's leading romantic hero, Rock Hudson, had died of Aids. Hudson had been forced to keep quiet about his homosexuality, partnering Doris Day in romantic comedies.

No one could have predicted, when his tragedy ushered in a new era of openness, that it would produce a generation of movie stars unashamed of their belief that life on earth is the result of an attempt by the head of the Galactic Federation to solve an overcrowding problem in his star system 75 million years ago.

Fight against fat is a no-win situation

It's easy to mock Caroline Flint, the svelte public health minister who's been given the task of getting the nation fit. With experts predicting that more than 13 million people in England will be obese by 2010, including a third of men and 28 per cent of women, Ms Flint, right, has an unenviable job on her hands. This is a health crisis on a massive scale, likely to cost taxpayers a fortune as people become too sick to work and need treatment for weight-related conditions such as diabetes.

So I can't see how it helps to make cheap jokes about Ms Flint or her boss, the Secretary of State for Health, Patricia Hewitt, who are at least trying to address the problem. This is one of those issues where the Government is bound to find itself in the wrong, damned for scandalous inaction if it doesn't intervene in people's eating and shopping habits and accused of being the nanny state when it does.

Once someone has gained a lot of weight, losing it isn't easy. I'm sure Ms Flint is aware of that, and of the fact that she will have to tell people two things they absolutely don't want to hear: eat less and take more exercise.

There's no magic solution, and the multi-million-pound diet industry demonstrates that it's much simpler to make money from fat people than to make them thin.

Deborah Orr is away