For Christians, the birth of Christ divides history into before and after. For frequent travellers, the crucial date is 9/11. Before then, you could arrive at an airport with a few minutes to spare and stroll onto your plane. Today you are subjected at airport security to a combination of hostility and intimacy that was once reserved for the terminal stages of a bad marriage.
I’m not suggesting that screening is unnecessary, but I do question the way it is done. The big argument is about profiling, though people don’t always take the sides you expect them to. When I lived in Washington, DC, my Iranian barber complained about not being singled out for scrutiny. “I look like a terrorist,” he exclaimed, as his razor hovered near my neck. “I travel to hairdressing conventions carrying scissors and razors! And yet they always pick on a nun in a wheelchair!”
The authorities deny that they profile the public, but I know, on the basis of a statistically significant number of observations, that they are lying. They select for special attention harried middle-aged journalists who are late for their planes and likely to lose their jobs if they fail to turn up on time for an interview with some self-important chief executive. They have sophisticated sensors that can pick up the whiff of panic as I scurry towards security and cunning devices to ensure that everything that can go wrong does. When I put my liquids into their clear plastic bag the tops come off, creating a sticky fusion of toothpaste, deodorant and shaving cream. When I remove my jacket, loose change cascades onto the floor. When I take off my shoes, holes instantly appear in my socks, revealing snaggle-nailed toes.
The number of humiliations I have endured is too long to chronicle in the paltry space that I’m allocated here, but a couple of instances will give you a flavour of my sufferings. The second-worst was, as is so often the case, the result of an innovation I was convinced would improve my life. I came across a fishing vest in one of those upmarket clothing catalogues that feature prose poems by ageing hippies. A lightbulb went on in my head. I was covering the 2004 American presidential campaign and kept making a fool of myself – turning up to interviews without a pen and arriving in the Midwest without a driving licence. Clad in my multi-pocketed dream coat I would become the Bob Woodward of Bush v Kerry.
I arrived in Washington’s Reagan airport in a jaunty mood, having spent hours loading my vest pockets with every conceivable instrument of journalistic excellence. I walked through the metal detector only to be greeted by a frenzy of beeps. So I took out the obvious culprits – the mobile phone, electronic organiser – and advanced again. Beep! Beep! Beep! I went back and forth, removing items as I went. Cigarette lighter! Nail clippers! Notebook, with that guilty wire spine! The guards were getting angrier. My fellow-passengers became restive. When one of them pointed out the obvious solution, and I took the vest off, I sailed through the metal detector only to discover that putting everything back was even more arduous than taking it out. Just after the plane doors had closed, I realised I had left a notebook containing several weeks’ work at security.
But the fishing-vest fiasco was nothing compared with the Marmite meltdown. I was bringing a half-consumed jar of this precious black nectar back home after a trip to England, Marmite being hard to get hold of in the land of the bland and the jar being a giant. I had flown via St Louis, where I was giving a speech on some globalisation-related theme or other, and presented myself for inspection at security. As usual, my suitcase was selected for special attention by the most officious of the officials. He was unpacking my possessions with a practised hand, when a look of horror crossed his face. I glanced down and realised what had happened. I had wrapped the Marmite jar in several pairs of underpants to protect it from the rigours of travel. The underpants had done a sterling job of stopping the glass from shattering; unfortunately, the lid of the jar had come undone, releasing a thick brown ooze into the protective swaddling. My Midwestern interrogator, who I suspect had never before been exposed to Marmite’s distinctive smell, visibly gagged and summoned assistance.
A group of officials gathered around my bag. Some prodded it with high-tech wands. Others put on surgical gloves and gingerly separated the underpants one from another. When they had satisfied themselves that my bag did not represent a danger to national security, my original tormentor repacked my possessions, looking at me as if I were Jeffrey Dahmer released on a technicality, before proclaiming, through gritted teeth, that I was free to head to the nation’s capital.
I never did get the smell out of those underpants.