Nicholas Lezard: Airport security looks like the death of banter

The times we live in are antagonistic to nuance or the back-and-forth of human interaction

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The Independent Online

So it has been confirmed: airports are where you not only have to make sure your nail scissors are safely packed away, but your senses of humour and perspective, too. David Jones, 67, made a comment to a Gatwick security official which essentially questioned the practice of allowing Muslim women with their faces covered to proceed unexamined.

Hauled over for an hour's stand-off during which he was asked to apologise to a female Muslim security officer who had been "deeply distressed" by his remarks, he refused to do so on the grounds that he had not insulted anyone, and had nothing to apologise for. Jones's case has made the news because he is the creator of Fireman Sam; those of us who have not originated a charming stop-motion children's series would not have been given a platform for our grievance.

Well, we all know we should keep our mouths shut near the metal detectors these days; and even refrain from making angry comments when a provincial airport is closed by snow, as Paul Chambers has famously learned to his cost with his tweet about blowing one up (and ours: I wonder how much the taxpayer has had to fork out for his mind-bogglingly stupid trial, conviction, and appeal).

Last year, we also learned that the traffic in intolerance and sense-of-humour failure is two-way, when a US Transport Security Administration officer found a "personal item" in the lawyer and writer Jill Filipovic's bag, and wrote, "Get your freak on, girl" on the inspection docket; Filipovic failed to see the funny side. The officer has since lost his job (not an outcome that Filipovic desired, incidentally).

It makes me uneasy to align myself with the voices of the Telegraph and the Mail, whose reporting of the David Jones case suggests a disposition to support him over the offended officer; but sometimes enough is enough, and we have to make a plea for reason and good humour to prevail.

Unfortunately, the times we live in are antagonistic to nuance, or the back-and-forth of human interaction, and what used to be the Briton's birthright – the freedom to swap, unmolested, a bit of banter with an official – is imperilled to the point of extinction. Airports, which used to be places which felt freer than the countries they were situated in, are now much less so; zones of peril and menace, patrolled by robots in human form. There have always been jobsworths, but increase the amount of power the jobsworths have and the danger they pose to the rest of us is magnified inordinately. Cheekiness and backchat have no place in the barely demilitarised zone of an airport.

It will get worse before it gets better, I'm afraid; in fact, it will never get better. There is a ratchet effect to intolerance and humourlessness. Another nasty, tiny little victory for the terrorists behind 9/11. But we didn't have to hand it to them.

Twitter: @Nicklezard