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

Java/Calypso Developer

£700 per day: Harrington Starr: Java/Calypso Developer Java, Calypso, J2EE, J...

SQL Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer SQL, C#, Stored Procedures, MDX...

Front-Office Developer (C#, .NET, Java, AI)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Front-Office D...

C#.NET Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: C#.NET Developer C#, WPF, WCF, ASP.NET, Prism...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ashya King in hospital with his mother  

Ashya King: Breakdown in relations led to this PR fiasco

Paul Peachey
Jim Murphy, Shadow Secretary of State for International Development holds a carton of eggs during a speech to Better Together supporters  

When the course of history is on the line, democracy is a raw, vicious and filthy business

Matthew Norman
Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

Stolen youth

Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

Made by Versace, designed by her children

Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Anyone for pulled chicken?

Pulling chicks

Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
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