You may be aware of something called “The War on Terror.” If you aren’t, try taking a flight from London’s Gatwick Airport.
Recently, I arrived there, as advised by my travel agent, four hours before my flight’s departure time, at the ungodly hour of 6 a.m. The War on Terror began immediately.
I was informed by a PA system that no quantities of liquid in excess of 100 ml were permitted in carry-on luggage. This measure has apparently been introduced to thwart terrorists with alchemical inclinations and a fondness for stirring up explosive cocktails from a mix of individually innocuous liquid ingredients while their fellow passengers are studiously ignoring 1.) the pre-take-off safety instructions; 2.) the wild-eyed guy next to them who is murmuring “death to the Great Satan, Allah Akhbar, Tony Blair’s a hound’s rear end” and mixing an explosive cocktail of individually innocuous ingredients. And that’s before failing to blow up his shoe because he can’t light a match a la that prize terroristical turkey, Richard Reid.
I opened my backpack and stared rather sadly at my hip flask. That would have to go. Single Malt! Eek! Mineral water? 250 ml. Bye bye. Suntan lotion? Oh, dear. Far too heavy.
While I disemboweled my carry-on, my wife was doing the same. Her contact lens solution. Obviously a threat to democracy, apple pie, aircraft, infidels — but also actually quite useful if you want to wear contact lenses. But out it came. Now what to do with it? I saw my wife remove another bottle and peer at it with despair. Milk! For our 3-year-old daughter!
Frustrated business travelers
Everywhere I looked there were confused-looking holidaymakers and frustrated business travelers dumping lots of innocuous liquids exceeding 100 ml in quantity into War On Terror chutes or, if they didn’t fancy the queues, any available rubbish bins.
What,I wondered, would happen if these innocuous liquids, so hastily discarded, so obviously leaking, and in such close proximity to other liquids, somehow mingled and by sheer chance created their own cocktail? And then detonated, destroying the pre-departure hall? Has anyone thought this through?
I wondered this as I joined the queue to clear security/customs and that desk with the luggage-weighing machine that let’s you know that you’ve packed far too much liquid into your suitcase thereby incurring a fine.
As in every war, there is a moment of bonding between the innocent citizens involved. It happened during the Blitz, when plucky Londoners sang songs and told jokes while Luftwaffe bombs rained down. But this war was different. And so was the bonding.
“This is f*****g ridiculous!”
I immediately bonded with the man behind me. He didn’t have time to tell jokes. He was too busy putting his liquid hand luggage into his suitcase. So was I. So were hundreds of other people. And so was my wife. But the milk was proving a bit of a quandary. My daughter Annabel obviously wanted to drink it (as opposed to blowing herself to pieces). As the “final call” signs echoed from distant gates and the queue swelled and looped through all those heart-wrenching crowd-control systematics that are designed to convince you the line is only 300-people long as opposed to 3,000, terror struck.
“There’s only two X-ray machines working!”
“My flight’s leaving!”
“I don’t care if it’s going to blow up! I want to be on it! I’ve been queuing for 3 1/2 hours!”
“Would you please remove your shoes, Sir? And your daughter’s?”
“She’s only 3!”
“Please remove her shoes, Sir. And take off your belt.”
“Would you please start your laptop, Sir?”
Invective and tears
Tempers didn’t fray. They snapped. There was screaming and shouting and invective and tears.
“You think this is bad,” one officer informed me. “Wait till tomorrow when they institute the blanket smoking ban.”
I made my flight, but that was because I ran faster than Roger Bannister with a rocket up his rectum. And the run was painful. I flashed past extraordinary Duty Free offers, tempting whiffs of wake-up coffee, and empty shops with morose staff watching the stampede. I overtook little old ladies who had about as much chance of reaching their gates as they had of actually finding them (Gatwick’s corridors are endless). And I passed those whose will had snapped, whose legs had failed them, who had simply given up. They stared at me with hopeless, shell-shocked eyes. Casualties. War victims.
When I finally returned home, it was to see on the news that a van allegedly crewed by blood-crazed doctors had skipped the explosive-liquid ploy and had circumvented all the countless security checks by simply driving a flaming car into the wall of Glasgow Airport.
I unpacked my carry-on bag and something caught my eye. It was a cattle prod. This nifty little device is torch-shaped and torch-sized, but the only illumination it produces is a brief (or if you want to kill someone, sustained) and phenomenally violent crackle of volts. I’m no psycho, but Africa (my home is in Namibia) occasionally throws those who are into my path. And when our paths cross it is my policy to administer a brief but educational zap that renders the villain senseless.
I hadn’t packed my prod with a view to foreign travel (or storming a cockpit). And it wasn’t a cheap journo stunt. I’d simply tucked it into a side pocket of my bag while taking my daughter for a walk a couple of weeks prior to flying and forgotten it was there. Admittedly it was fairly inconspicuous and covered by a random fold of canvas — which is why I’d forgotten it was there — but nonetheless it had made it not just once, not twice, but eight times through British, Greek, Turkish and Namibian versions of airport War on Terror precautions.
Unlike my toothpaste. That never stood a chance. Fly safely!