Wednesday, October 23, 2002

There is a scene in the original radio series of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy in which Douglas Adams describes how in some circumstances a preponderance of shoe stores which all sell shoes in a single size drive out all other businesses. Something called "the shoe event horizon" is reached and civilization collapses (or something like that). This was apparently written when Adams was in a rage about having spent a whole day going from shoe shop to shoe shop but being unable to find a pair of shoes anywhere that would fit. This scene was scaled down to a fraction of its size in other versions of THHGTTG, which were written when Adams was not in such a rage.

Last week, after a particularly irritating check in experience at London Stansted airport, I got out my laptop and wrote about it when I was sitting on the plane. The resulting 1500 word rant is probably long and boring to many people. But since this is my blog and I do not have an editor, I will post it anyway.

I am in Germany for a couple of days, having purchased one of these extremely cheap airfares that now exist due to the European single market. When travelling for just a couple of days, I travel extremely light: just a tiny backpack with a change of clothes, a camera, a toothbrush, enough reading matter to last me a month, and a mass of electronics with an assortment of power adapters. My laptop was bought in Australia, and has an Australian power plug. In Germany, I plug it in via an Australian to British adaptor which in turn is plugged into a British to continental European adaptor. (I did have an Australian to European adaptor, but it was lost somewhere in the low countries). My cell phone was purchased in Britain, so it only has to go through the British to European adaptor. (I would like to have a Sony Micro-MV format digital camcorder as well, but the 1500 pound cost of one of these will have to wait until I get a job).

In any event, I travel light, and for short trips I carry only hand luggage. This presents a problem post September 11 if I am not careful, because I like to carry a Swiss Army Knife with me. If I don't have any checked baggage I cannot put the kinife in the checked luggage, and it will be confiscated. When on my way to Turkey in June, I was delayed by a varietyof factors, and I ended up having to carry my checked luggage all the way to the gate in order to make the plane. This meant I had to take it through security. This meant my Swiss Army Knife was confiscated, despite my best efforts.

Anyway, the long and the short of it is that in the check in line on my way to Germany, I realised I had my Swiss Army Knife in my pocket. I briefly considered checking in my one bag, but no, I was not putting my laptop in the hold of the plane. I then had an idea, went to W.H. Smith and purchased one of those postage envelopes with the plastic bubbles inside (known as a "Jiffy bag" in the United Kingdom, for some reason I do not understand), put the knife in it, addressed it to myself, put what was hopefully enough postage on the envelope, and attempted to post it. I took it to a nearby post box and attempted to post it. Problem solved. The person who sold me the envelope looked at what I was doing, and commented that the security precautions were so ineffective that I would probably have got it on the plane anyway. Problem solved.

Well, no. The postbox was designed specifically so that its slot was only 5mm wide, and therefore it could only take ordinary sized enveloped. (Presumably this was to make it hard to put bombs in the post box. Or possibly Her Majesty's Customs have a great selection of Swiss Army Knives and want to foil my attempts to prevent myself from adding to it). The Swiss Army knife in my envelope was probably 15mm wide, so there was no way it would fit.

At this point I was determined not to lose another Swiss Army Knife. The thought of hearing my mother's displeasure as she discovered that I had lost another Swiss Army Knife to airport security went through my head (if I told her). To lose two would definitely look like carelessness. Therefore, I contemplated doing something bad. Well, not actually bad in the sense that it could actually hurt anybody. (Let's face it, I wasn't planning on hijacking the aircraft). I thought about how to rearrange my bag in such a way that the knife would be least likely to show up on the X-Ray machine if I carried it on. I did in fact rearrange my bag to ensure this. (From looking over people's shoulders, I know that my laptop casts a large shadow on the X-Ray machine. The trick is presumably to place the knife in this shadow somewhere). Possibly someone was watching me on airport closed circuit television and they would have surrounded the security check point with guys with machine guns so as to prevent me from getting my knife onto the plane. (The scene in one of the "Airplane" movies where guards violently push a little old lady against a wall and frisk her while four or five guys wearing military fatigues and carrying machine guns and ammunition belts walk right through comes to mind here). Anyway, having done this, I was walking nervously through the terminal towards the gate. I saw another postbox. I thought that it would be the same as the first. But no, it had a much larger slot. As to why one postbox would have a narrow slot to foil terrorist bombs but not the other, I don't know. Perhaps losing one postbox to terrorist bombs could happen to any airport, but losing both would look like carelessness). I opened my bag, took the knife out from its perfectly concealed position behind the laptop, put it in the jiffy bag, and posted it. Presumably, when I get home, I will find the empty envelope with a letter from the Royal Mail telling me that the sending of knives through the post is prohibited and it has been confiscated. (Update: I actually did get my knife back).

Risking being machine gunned as a potential terrorist (or, more likely, seriously arrested. (Or more likely than that, given a stern warning and a full cavity search)) for a knife that I had bought in Amsterdam for 20 Euros was perhaps not a wise potential tradeoff for me to have made. But I nearly did. One thing that this might suggest is that I simply catch the train. When I brought the knife back from Amsterday through the Channel Tunnel, my luggage was X-Rayed but there was no trouble carrying the knife. Presumably it is hard to hijack a train with a knife and then crash it into a large building.

(That said, it is worth some time watching the movie Death Train, featuring Patrick Stewart, Pierce Brosnan, and a woman who was once in Baywatch who in the movie is supposedly an expert sniper trying to foil generic Russian terrorists who have hijacked a train in Germany and who are demanding that they be given clear passage to allow them to take the train to Iraq. (Yes, really. We are initially led to believe they are only slightly less implausably trying to take it to Serbia, but that turns out to be a ruse). Admittedly, in this case the train has been hijacked with a nuclear weapon rather than a Swiss Army Knife, which makes the plot either more or less silly depending on how you look at it. Either way, dumbest movie ever. One does wonder how this could be worked into the "Saddam Hussein is trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction and therefore we must invade his country" argument if it really happened, though).

Seriously though, as many people have observed, these security regulations are excessive and silly. They are not going to stop any more genuine hijackers than did the regulations in place before last September. People who want to get sharp objects onto an aircraft will succeed in doing so, because there are simply too many sharp objects. (I did carry a disposable razor and a glass mirror that are in my shaving kit onto the plane without difficulty. Certainly I could fashion a crude but effective weapon from those if I wanted to. However, even if terrorists do get sharp objects onto a plane, they are unlikely to be able to hijack a plane with them. The September 11 plot worked because the procedures then in place were that in the case of a hijacking you don't attack the hijackers and you wait for them to make demands, which they will. These procedures are no longer in place, and nobody will every treat hijackers like that again.

However, the regulations do cause utterly harmless people like me to contemplate breaking the law, to risk being caught by airport security. This isn't good, potentially because it can waste the time of said airport security, and secondly because having laws that reasonable people think about breaking as part of their everyday business are bad laws almost by definition. They lower respect for the idea of law in general, and this is not good.

I could now launch into a savage attack on present day intellectual property law, but I will refrain from that for now. (My fingers are crossed for a good result in Eldred vs Ashcroft, however).

No comments:

Blog Archive