It’s godawfully early in the morning, and I’ve been up for several hours already. The one good think about ridiculous shift patterns, I suppose, isn’t necessarily that you get any better at waking up at all silly hours of the day, but that you do get better at having at least some of your faculties when you’re operating in a sleepy daze.
In this particular instance, I was at Stansted, waiting in an improbably long line for security. Of course, since I was going on holiday to some random destination, where one of my colleagues was celebrating his stag do, we were doing this on the cheap, and I was a victim of EasyJet’s ridiculous, well, Everything. One of those things was that I had just been stung god-knows-how-many-quid because Easyjet is apparently the only airline in the known universe to charge you to print your tickets for you. The other thing was that the plane left at the ass-cleft of dawn, from some backwater gate in one of the least attractive airport ever built on this planet.
So, without the lifeline that is my first cup of coffee of the morning, and after a shift that had ended at 4am instead of at midnight, I had somehow managed to show up at the airport at roughly the right time, with all of my colleagues already airside, in the bar.
And then there was security.
When I finally made it to the front of the queue, I was non compos mentis with tiredness, but at least I managed to wring off my jacket and fish my iPad out of my hand luggage, before sending it through the scanners.
As I walked through the metal scanner, I paid close attention – I always do – and noted that the metal detector didn’t go off. Hurrah – one of life’s tiny victories, I thought, and pointed myself at the conveyor belt to get my stuff.
“Excuse me, sir?” I heard behind me, and ignored it.
The tapping on my shoulder was harder to ignore, so I turned around.
“Yes? What can I do for you?”
“I just need to do a quick search.”
“Oh? But the metal detector didn’t go off?” I asked.
“I still need to search you.”
“So are you actually going to search me, or are you just going to half-heartedly stroke me?” I said, vaguely annoyed.
“Nothing, just go ahead and search, I don’t have a problem with that.”
The security bloke spent an awful long time patting my arms, checking the hem of my trousers, and even made a point of making me lift each foot.
In my job, we search people all the time. In fact, there’s three different levels of search, including a ‘normal’ search, a strip search, and an ‘intimate’ search. The first one is the type of search you might be subjected to on the street, for example. The latter is the one where the proverbial rubber gloves come out (not that we’d ever do a search without rubber gloves, of course).
The point of a search – and especially a search on arrest – is that we assume that the person we are searching has one of three things on them: Evidence of a crime they are trying to hide, drugs they might take whilst in the back of the caged van, or weapons they might try to use to attack us.
At an airport, I’m guessing the thing they are most worried about is weapons: They wouldn’t care much about evidence of crime, and ‘drugs’ is firmly in the hands of customs, not airport security. As such, I’m always really confused by the searches they do at airports. If I thought that the person I was searching might have a weapon on them, I wouldn’t dream of conducting an airport search. I have found knives (even ceramic ones that wouldn’t snow up on airport metal detection scanners) on people in all sorts of weird hiding places, including taped high to the inside of their thighs, or clenched between someone’s butt-cheeks.
You can do an incredible amount of damage to someone with a simple straight razor blade, and the size and shape of them are perfect for hiding in all sorts of places. Trust me: There’s no way a half-hearted pat-down finds a razor blade gaffer-taped to the inside of someone’s upper arm, or in the centre of their chest.
“Really?” I mumbled, as the security guy indicated he had finished his search, and pointed me at my luggage.
“What?” he snapped.
“I said ‘Really?’”, I said.
“What is that supposed to mean?” he said, giving me a huge hint that this, Delito, would have been your cue to just shut the hell up, get your stuff, and go get on a plane, and drink heavily for a few days, forgetting about the ridiculousness that just happened.
“Ah don’t worry about it.” I said.
“No.” he said, visibly annoyed. “What was that supposed to mean?”
I glanced at the clock at the far wall. I did have about an hour and a half.
“That search was absolutely useless.” I said. “And just shows how much of all of this is security theatre. You guys are just feeling up passengers for no good effect, which means that you get all the downsides of a search – such as annoyed travellers who feel like they have had their privacy violated – without any of the benefits. I could have hidden half a dozen items on my person that you wouldn’t have had a snowball’s chance in a supernova of finding. That’s what I meant.”
“Sir, are you hiding something?” he said, and as he did, I saw three other security guys coming our way. Oh dear.
“Of course not.” I said. “But if I had wanted to, I could have.”
“Why do you have such a problem with being searched?” another security guy said, presumably the first guy’s supervisor.
“Look, I have absolutely no problem with being searched. But if you’re going to do it, do it properly – the plane is no safer at all after this gentleman half-heartedly stroked me for a couple of seconds” I said.
“How do you mean?” the supervisor asked.
“He was stroking me as if he was trying to get me to sleep with him, not as if he was trying to find anything on me.” I said. “I’ve been searched many, many times, and in this case, I could have hidden things in my socks, taped to my thigh, taped to the small of my back, the insides of my upper arms, under my testicles or anywhere on my buttocks.”
“Why have you been searched so many times?” the supervisor asked sharply.
“I’m a police officer. I help train other police officers. When we search someone, we assume that the person who searches us may have a knife or something else they can use to harm us, so we search properly. And yes, this means that you have to take a firm grip of somebody’s groin, yes, this means that you search even the parts that are less comfortable to have searched, and yes, this means that you’re probably going to incur a couple of sexual harassment accusations along the way.” I nodded at the security guard who had searched me. “This fellow here did by far the most useless search I have ever been subjected to, and if I wanted to, I could have smuggled half a dozen knives onto the flight. I don’t have a problem with being searched at all – in fact, if you guys think it’s necessary, I’d be the first to admit that I look a little bit suspicious before I’ve had my first cup of coffee in the morning – but if you’re going to stroke me gently in front of hundreds of people, you’d better buy me a fucking drink first, is all I am saying.”
The security supervisor was standing there, frozen at my rant.
“So can I please go put my shoes back on and go meet my friends?”
“I think we’re going to have to do a more thorough search on you first.” the security guy who searched me said.
“Really?” I snapped at him. “Well I hope one of your friends here is competent at it, because I’m not letting you touch me again.”
“Sir, please calm down.” the supervisor said. “Do you have any ID on you?”
I wiggled the passport I had been holding in my hand the whole time. Of course, they never searched that, and I could have easily hidden half a dozen razorblades in there as well. Ceramic ones, too, if I’d have been worried about the metal detector.
The supervisor shook his head. “You mentioned you were a police officer?”
“In the small leather wallet in the right pocket of my jacket.” I said.
The supervisor walked over, and fished my warrant card out of my jacket, looked at it intently for a few seconds, and gave the wallet to me.
“On your way.” he said, curtly, before replacing the guy who had searched me with another security fellow, taking the searcher with him, spinning around on his heel, and traipsing off towards a door marked ‘security’ in the far wall.
I collected my stuff, and went to find my friends, unconvinced as ever that there’s any point to this whole airport security thing at all. But at least, I figured, as I had visions of drinks with umbrellas in them, I don’t have to worry about it until I get on my return flight from Egypt in four days’ time
Matt Delito is a pseudonym for a policeman working for the Metropolitan Police. All Notes from the Frontline are not entirely “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” due to the sensitive nature of the business, but are all based on actual events. These days, he’s on Facebook and Twitter as well.
Matt has a book based on his Notes from the Front Line column out now – you can get it from Amazon, in paperback or on Kindle.
If you missed his previous columns on Giz UK, check them out over here.