Start spreading the blues

New year's eve in New York - how risk-aversion turns pleasure into a chore.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

‘Safety first’ is the motto of our age – but it seems that in order to avoid danger we are undermining the very things we were trying to do in the first place.

During a recent trip to New York and New Zealand, I discovered that risk-avoidance can turn a pleasure into a chore. Air travel today involves arduous security checks – not just removing metal items from your pockets, putting your bags through an x-ray machine and walking through a metal detector, but also removing your shoes and being individually re-examined with a handheld metal detector.

Such checks are galling when you consider that a man with a pocketful of bullets passed undetected through this process at Washington DC’s Dulles Airport – bringing to mind that scene in The Life of Brian where Roman troops run in and out of a tiny house unable to find the group of conspirators hiding within.

After making it to the other side of the pond, visitors have to queue for an hour while various forms are filled in and passports checked. One form, visa waiver I-94W, asks: ‘Are you seeking entry to engage in criminal or immoral activities?’ – a question unlikely to stop the criminal or immoral, only those with a sense of humour. But a sense of humour in an American airport can be a dangerous thing, as British student Samantha Marson discovered this week, when she was arrested at Miami airport for joking that she had a bomb in her bag (1). She currently faces up to a year in jail.

While you wait to talk to one of the famously miserable immigration officials, your bag is sniffed by a beagle from the Department of Agriculture looking for contraband food. On my later visit to Los Angeles, this process triumphantly produced one half-eaten sandwich. At least British citizens don’t have the added indignity of being photographed and fingerprinted, as is the case with all visitors who require a visa – at least, not yet (2)

Concorde was resigned last year and supersonic travel came to an end for the time being – but air travel could be speeded up considerably were it not for all of this queuing and questioning under a state of suspicion.

After clearing customs, I expected to be able to kick back in the Land of the Free – and judging by the 30 layers of pastrami in my sandwich from Carnegie’s Deli on Seventh Avenue, it seemed that not every part of America has become risk-averse. But the modern spirit of murdering a good time was much in evidence in Times Square on new year’s eve.

The world’s most famous new year celebration has long since ceased to be spontaneous, when there is the problem of how to deal with 500,000 people trying to be in the same place at the same time. This year, the problem was compounded by security fears. Republican congressman Christopher Shays condemned New York for allowing the event to go ahead under the threat of attack; he needn’t have worried – New York’s finest had the place locked down.

People started arriving at 3pm to find good spots within the crowd barriers, knowing that after a certain point they wouldn’t be able to leave. One reveller told the BBC: ‘I feel like this is the most secure place in the world tonight…. I had to go through three checkpoints, plus there’s the helicopters in the air, the machineguns on the rooftops, dogs sniffing the subways and they actually searched us coming in.’ (3) Party on, dude.

By midnight, some had been in the square for nine hours, unable to get a drink or go to the toilet for the previous four or five. So after a quick singalong to New York, New York, the square emptied rapidly after midnight. And given New York’s zero-tolerance policing, there could be no nipping into an alleyway to relieve the pressure; instead, a few hundred thousand people simply crossed their legs on the subway home.

Still, at least New York had its new year. In Edinburgh and other cities in the UK, celebrations were cancelled due to bad weather, with partygoers sent home an hour before midnight. ‘We are just gutted’, Edinburgh organiser Paddy Cuthbert told the Guardian. ‘Unfortunately, we had to take the decision to cancel the whole street party. Everything has been done with safety in mind. But the whole scene is just very, very sad. We are just gutted, gutted, gutted.’ (4)

Perhaps we should take a tip from London mayor Ken Livingstone and stay at home next year to watch new year’s eve on TV – this year’s fireworks by the River Thames lasted just three minutes and were entirely for the cameras (5). In future, the resolution will be televised.

(1) Bomb ‘joke’ student jailed, BBC News, 20 January 2004

(2) US Department of Homeland Security

(3) Revellers defy security concerns, BBC News, 1 January 2004

(4) New Year is cancelled, Guardian, 1 January 2004

(5) The Odd Truth, CBS News, 9 December 2003

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Topics Politics


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