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

Share

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".

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Graduate C#.NET Developer (TDD, ASP.NET, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Graduate C#.NET Developer (TDD, ASP.NET, SQL) Su...

Junior SQL DBA (SQL Server 2012, T-SQL, SSIS) London - Finance

£30000 - £33000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior SQL DBA...

C# Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, MVC-4, HTML5) London

£35000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Web Develop...

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ukip leader Farage with former Tory MP Carswell, who has defected to his party  

Could Douglas Carswell be a Trotskyite in disguise?

John Rentoul
Richard Attenborough, who died on 25 August, attends a film premiere  

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

DJ Taylor
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution