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Philip Hensher: Bullying intrusion is now a routine experience

At some point, we must be prepared to take a risk rather than throw away civilised standards
  • @PhilipHensher

The other day, I was flying to Geneva for the weekend. Passing through the first of several potential waves of security at Heathrow airport, I was stopped by a young man with a piece of cotton wool on a stick. "I need to swab your bag, mate," he said. At those words, faced with the expensive misery of travelling and being told to remove shoes and unpack your bags and be groped by security staff, something broke in my soul.

"Mate?" I said, a little sharply. "OK – mate, buddy..." he said, offering an alternative. "Buddy," I said. "Buddy." I may be wrong, but considering the non-optional indignities to which security staff can subject you, I think the least they can do is to speak to you in the same civil way that they are entitled to expect from the public. But this security person had swabbed and groped and ordered so many people to remove their belts and shoes that he thought that it was perfectly all right to call us "mate" and "buddy". And for that reason I do not believe that he is a fit person to be permitted to use a camera to inspect strangers naked.

Not everyone agrees, however. The Transport Secretary, Justine Greening, this week confirmed that airport security measures are going to include a camera which can screen individuals through their clothes. The cameras produce a specific image of the passenger's body – certainly enough to indicate very intimate details. There will be no possibility of opting out of this process. Everyone – children, old people, nuns, rich and poor, dignitaries and the helpless – will be obliged to submit their bits to the inspection of some labourer in the security industry, bored and in search of amusement. How could that go wrong?

We are assured that the inspectors will be seated in a separate space where they will not see us in person. Actually, I would like them to have to see us face to face. I would like to say, very loudly, "I do hope you're enjoying a good old look at my testicles."

The security industry, terrifyingly, is a sector which now contains some of Britain's largest employers. Moreover, it is a sector that is notorious for high turnover of staff, as people do it for a while and then move on. It needs a constant stream of recruits, and, like any business, is always keen to diversify into new and innovative products. Suggesting ever more intrusive ways to humiliate and control the general public is an effective means of justifying and driving growth. If the security industry decided tomorrow to try to persuade a government minister that one person in 100 should be randomly selected at airports to undergo a strip search, they'd get, at the very least, a serious hearing.

There is an analogy to be drawn with the current exposure of newspaper tactics in enquiring into the private lives of celebrities and victims of crime. At the time, it was repeatedly argued by those who ought to have known better that by placing themselves in the public eye, and discussing their private lives at all, actors and celebrities had sacrificed all right to privacy.

Those people who thought it was OK to hack into strangers' phones and publish the intimate results must have considered it as a price they were entitled to demand. The cost of participating in the modern world of celebrity was, it seemed, that you sacrificed your right to have a conversation, unheard by strangers, with your spouse or friends. Who imposed that condition? Why, the people who would benefit from it. The fact that that condition, undoubtedly true to a degree, had limits which were imposed by decency and respect is only now being made painfully clear.

The same is true of the demand that our bodies be inspected in detail as a cost of travel, of taking part in modern life. At some point, it must become apparent that in every area of life, we are prepared to accept a risk rather than throw away civilised standards. It is not good enough for the security industry to claim that, in order to take a flight, it is absolutely necessary that every one of us be treated like a new admission to Wormwood Scrubs.

Airport security is at the cutting edge of control and humiliation, as the tabloid newspapers were at the cutting edge of definitions of "privacy". The measures only found at airports 30 years ago are now found on train stations, in nightclubs, in museums, and even in shopping centres. In 30 years' time, we will probably have to agree to be photographed naked before we are allowed to buy a pair of shoes. By that time, of course, before stepping on a plane, our humiliation will be made to be public, complete, and dreadful; all orchestrated by the man who likes to call his victims "buddy".