When security scares

Does taking a breadknife on a self-catering holiday make you a potential mass murderer?

Stephen Bowler

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Topics Politics

You can stop worrying about knife-wielding hijackers. I have tested Britain’s defences and they are watertight.

A youth in a bright yellow jacket was searching my car at Mostyn – an unglamorous container port in North Wales, from where we were sailing to Dublin – when he suddenly started calling me ‘sir’. You know something’s gone wrong when they call you ‘sir’.

Sure enough, he had found the kitchen knife wrapped in a tea towel.

‘Aha’ he declared, in a passable impression of Alan Partridge. ‘What do we have here then?’ ‘It’s a knife’, I explained. ‘For cooking.’ After all, my family and I were off on holiday to a self-catering place, where such implements are usually as blunt as a bus.

The yellow youth wasn’t buying it. ‘There’s a lot of bad guys out there’, he said with a glint in his eye. ‘You see that boat over there, it’s worth £11million’, he added, as if to convince us (and himself) that his work was of national importance.

Enter the police. Special Branch, no less. What was I doing with a dangerous weapon in a public place? ‘It wasn’t in a public place’, I responded. ‘It was in my car.’

Did I realise that it’s an offence to carry a weapon in this area? ‘It was in the car’, I maintained, again referring to the Tardis-like vehicle that no doubt contained all manner of stuff that could be deemed ‘offensive’ if they so desired.

Didn’t I realise what could be achieved with a knife post-11 September? ‘Well yes, but only by the sort of person who is hell-bent on doing something crazy’, I replied. ‘And what on Earth am I to do with a container ferry anyway – sail it round the coast, up the Thames and have the captain ram parliament with it?’

And so it went on, with 11 September being ritually incanted as justification for their behaviour. The quid pro quo involved them handing the knife over to the ship’s crew for safekeeping until we arrived in Dublin.

Then there was my son’s penknife, which the police hid in the boot of my own car, instructing me not to take it out until we got off the boat….

The boy-wonder in the fluorescent jacket and the suited and booted Special Branch seemed to work on the assumption that everyone passing through their little patch was a potential murderer – even families taking off from north Wales for a self-catering trip.

The idea that such ‘security’ could stop madmen is a delusion. As I experienced in Mostyn, the point is simply to be seen to be doing something – even when the authorities don’t really know what they’re supposed to be doing.

The message seems to be that we should trust each other less. Every day in our post-11 September world, thousands of items are confiscated from passengers at airports, on the basis that a passenger with a coat hanger might be tempted to hijack a plane and send its occupants crashing into oblivion. Could you do that? What about the person sitting next to you? Can you be sure?

The argument seems to be that if we all play the ‘security’ game, then we’ll all feel more secure. But the opposite is true. Treating everyone as a risk only drives home the message that risk is everywhere. A risk that is unidentified and unquantified is not really a risk at all, but a story we tell ourselves to fuel our darkest fears.

Security, of the kind that has become prevalent since 11 September, is less concerned with real identifiable risks than with threats with no real origin or rationale. In this context, risk is a dangerous thing indeed, blinding us to the one quality that might save us in a sticky situation – a strong sense of our own rational self-interest.

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Topics Politics

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