Uninformed harassment

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Security staff can be and are often wooden-headed and stubborn. That is why they are there. There is no need to cry foul over the Shah Rukh Khan episode

What is it about security delays and frisking that makes us mad? Two things which are quite separate but are confused every time a fresh incident takes place. The first is delaying or frisking a VIP like Shah Rukh Khan or a former President of India which is immediately projected as a deliberate affront to the country, verging on apartheid. This makes us go ballistic. The second is our personal litany of experiences of harassment ‘suffered’ at the hands of security staff. Here is why we need to become less prickly.

First, the SRK imbroglio. At the outset we have enough examples to show that the all-powerful uniformed US personnel do not spare their own VIPs who accept that. Senator Edward Kennedy was denied an internet airplane ticket to Boston simply because his name had been used as an alias by a suspected terrorist. The ticket was refused not just once but several times in a span of a few weeks.

On the same night as SRK’s hold up, Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps was involved in a road accident, and though he was found within the prescribed drinking limits, he was all the same hauled up for driving with an expired out-of-state licence. Such incidents are routine in a country where there is no VIP culture; if anything, VIPs such as they are in fact singled out for special attention to see if they are in the breach.

Let’s return to the case of the former President of India where the security staff was simply following internal orders which permitted no discretion to be exercised. In India just because we are very used to receiving, if not insisting, that discretion be shown as a matter of right, we think everyone operates in the same way. But different countries, cultures and organisations issue instructions intended to be followed in letter and spirit, leaving absolutely no scope for pick-and-choose. In the case of Dr APJ Abdul Kalam what should also have been checked was whether the airline and security staff had been frisking former Presidents and Prime Ministers too.

How many people are aware, for instance, that New Zealand’s former Prime Minister Helen Clark was frisked at Sydney Airport when she was Prime Minister, for carrying explosives? Despite having a security officer with her, Ms Clark was pulled out of a queue and given a body scan with a new explosive detection device to make sure she was not a terrorist. The Australian Government admitted that the incident was a wrong way to treat the leader of a country, particularly after the officials were told who she was. The security staff had reportedly gone on to send the results to a laboratory for testing!

The New Zealand Prime Minister’s staff simply said, “She knows that security checks are a fact of life in air travel. We’re all equals when it comes to security; no one is exempt.” As for Sydney airport’s security staff their response was characteristic: “It doesn’t matter who you are — if your number comes up, you’re screened.”

Coming to personal harassment, I was surprised to read a recent article written by a senior woman member of the Government. She says while travelling on a non-diplomatic passport and in her ordinary status she sensed that race, gender and religion had singled her out for special humiliation at a Canadian airport. Example No 1: That she had to remove her jewellery. That happens to be a routine at most international airports. No 2: She was asked what language she spoke. Is one’s education supposed to be written on one’s forehead? No 3: That her sister’s manicure set was dumped by the security staff. Security instructions the world over disallow non-folding scissors, even a nail file, or an innocuous female necessity — eyebrow tweezers. No 4: Her bottle of liquid lotion was tossed out. Liquids were banned as a standard requirement after a plot to blow up aircraft was discovered in Britain in August 2006. I’m on her side if she says all this causes acute inconvenience. It does and practical solutions should have been found by now. But it is not discrimination.

Reverting to the VIP syndrome, Indians are very used to demanding and submissively receiving discretionary treatment. Also for being recognised as an important public figure. Thankfully, most countries do not leave scope with the security staff to show discretion and that is why they have successfully prevented terrorism.

Moral of the story: Security staff can be and are often wooden-headed and stubborn. Perhaps that is why they are there and not doing something more glamorous. But once a system exists there is no need to start a cacophony as a display of national solidarity. At a time when passengers are getting increasingly sensitive about airport checks and security frisking, the fact that the Prime Minister of New Zealand was randomly selected for explosives security screening, delayed while on duty as Prime Minister and yet she accepted it gracefully, should remain a lesson for all passengers. Including Shah Rukh Khan who now says “it was no big deal”.

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