I have a confession.  Airport Security is something I grudgingly bear.  I can see why most of the precautions are taken, but really I think many precautions are knee jerk reactions that don’t really make us safer.  I sometimes think they are put in place to make us feel safe after a major terrorism scare and don’t actully make us safer.

The myth of airport security

The best defence against terrorism is good intelligence and police work, not a ban on mineral water


“THIS IS THE BUSIEST airport in the world at the busiest time of year,” said Heathrow’s chief executive officer Tony Douglas. “To suggest we could continue as if nothing had happened is frankly ludicrous.” Except, actually, nothing had. Not at Heathrow, anyway. No suspected terrorists were apprehended at or on the way to the airport, no bomb-making material was found on airport land. It never is. Look at the clear plastic box on display at every security checkpoint. Nail files, scissors, corkscrews, pen knives. No guns or bombs. Shortly to be joined by paperback books, cuddly toys and a litre of Buxton’s finest. But still no bombs.

Today, Britain’s state of alert will be downgraded from “Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God” to “Is it me or is that bloke with the beard sweating a bit?” which means small hand luggage will be allowed, but no liquids. Water bottles being the new shoes — remember Richard Reid, when everyone was under attack from Hush Puppies? — it is absolutely vital that we do not take liquid refreshment on to planes. Trains, fine: because, of course, whoever would think of targeting the rail network in Britain? Not this year, anyway. Well, I’m certainly feeling safer.


The heightened security was necessary, we were told, because when a plot is uncovered, there is no guarantee its many tentacles have been disabled. A splinter group, in fear of discovery, could be panicked into a drastic early plan. This speculation has logical fear at its root. What does not make sense, though, is why the only suitable venue is an airport and why a psychopath with an explosive cocktail would still attempt to get through an area heavy with detection aids, instead of taking the 9.30 from Euston untroubled and blowing it to kingdom come just as it hits 100mph through Watford Junction. Welcome to the illusion of security, folks, as thousands of people who could not possibly be terrorists stand in the rain outside Heathrow, brainwashed into believing that what they are going through is necessary or particularly effective. Airport security will never be anything more than a last resort, when all else has failed. If someone is heading for the gate with the bomb-making equivalent of an Ikea flat-pack, someone in the dark arts department hasn’t been doing his job. In this case, we believe, the security forces played a blinder. The most efficient conqueror of terrorism — good intelligence married to good police work — remains the best hope of saving the day. In the circumstances, a few extra precautions are needed. But this? We are so frightened of adopting measures that might offend the vocal Muslim community that we have managed to install a system that makes everybody a terrorist. And if everybody is a terrorist, then nobody is. Police investigating the Yorkshire Ripper murders interviewed Peter Sutcliffe nine times without making the connection between man and crime; hardly surprising considering the haphazard nature of the process. After the murder of Wilma McCann in 1975, 11,000 suspects were questioned; after the seriously assault of Maureen Long in 1975, 300 police took 12,500 statements; when a £5 note connected the killer of Jean Jordan to particular wage payments in the Shipley and Bingley area, he was one of another 5,000 under scrutiny. By treating everybody like the Ripper, police allowed Sutcliffe to merge into the crowd. Jaded investigators, working through another scattergun list of suspects, stopped believing the man in front of them could possibly be Jack. He was just another nobody to be written up and filed in a system so meaninglessly exhaustive that floors were strengthened to cope with the weight of paper. That is what happens when security throws a big net over the crowd. On the morning of September 11, 2001, three of the five hijackers on American Airlines Flight 77 triggered scanner alarms at Washington Dulles airport. Majed Moqed and Nawaf al-Hamzi set the warning off more than once, and both were then searched with handheld wands. Almost anyone who has flown knows this experience. It must happen thousands of times each day. You smile and mug your innocence; he wearily searches again, plainly expecting little more than a chunky watch. At Washington, the security officials found what they expected, nothing, and let the passengers on their way. Approximately two and a half hours later, Flight AA77 hit the Pentagon like a guided missile and 189 people died. The first voice I heard on radio last Thursday told me the pointlessness of profiling because terrorist organisations were sophisticated and would use operatives from outside the targeted group. Maybe it was somebody from the Muslim Council of Great Britain, an organisation which, by its very existence, suggests we are not all the same. No matter. The anti-profiling argument is like saying if the police keep pulling in fat, shaven-headed, white troglodytes covered in tattoos, England’s football hooligans will cleverly start recruiting from the ranks of hip, urbane black people who are all itching to get hopelessly pissed, sing “No surrender to the IRA” and be tear-gassed by the Carabinieri. Nonsense. In the event of racial profiling, there will be no Mid-Surrey Branch of al-Qaeda forming on the hoof. As for cunning disguises, we know them. There are two looks: beard on and beard off. Call me fanciful, but when Mohammed Atta imagined his meeting with the Almighty and his many virgins, he did not picture himself done up like Mrs Doubtfire. The quicker we can get the white matrons through, the more thoroughly we can check those that by age, race, behaviour or appearance fit what is becoming not so much a profile as a cliché. Alternatively, we carry on as we are. Everybody is a terrorist on planes, nobody is a terrorist on trains, and there is as much chance of locating explosive murder among Italian speed skaters or Saga holidaymakers as within the ranks of misguided Muslim youth. In other words, get in the queue, Britain, drink your water and shut up. Now, doesn’t that feel safe?