Tuesday, January 20, 2004

Spoiling the party

Safety first is the motto of our age, but it seems in many ways that in order to avoid danger, we are undermining the very things we were trying to do in the first place. This was brought home to me by a recent trip to New York and New Zealand where it became clear that avoiding risk was turning a pleasure into a chore.

Air travel today means a security check which gets longer and longer. No longer just removing all the metal from your pockets (including all those pesky foreign coins you will never get rid of), putting your bags and coats through an x-ray, and putting yourself through a metal detector. Now, it means removing your shoes, and being ready to be individually patted down and re-examined with a handheld metal detector, while your bags are searched.

All this is particularly galling when a man can pass through this process at Washington DC’s Dulles Airport with a pocket full of bullets and go undetected, a fact which recalls that scene in Monty Python's The Life of Brian where the best part of a legion of Roman troops runs in and out of a tiny house unable to find the group of conspirators hiding within.

Having made it to the other side of the pond, the humble visitor is then forced to queue up for an hour while various forms and passports are checked. The pettiness of this procedure is illustrated by visa waiver form I-94W which 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.

At least at this stage, UK citizens aren’t having the added indignity of being photographed and fingerprinted routinely, too, as is the case with all visitors to the US who require a visa. (1)

While you wait to talk to one of the famously miserable US immigration officials, take heart as your bag is sniffed by a beagle from the Department of Agriculture looking for contraband food. On my flight into Los Angeles on the return trip, this process triumphantly produced one half-eaten sandwich.

Last year, we saw the end of Concorde and the death of supersonic travel for the time being, but the fact is that air travel could be speeded up considerably were it not for the inordinate length of time spent queuing under a state of suspicion while entering and leaving airports.

Having finally cleared customs, I expected to be able to kick back in the Land of the Free. And indeed, it seems that some forms of risk-aversion haven’t completely overwhelmed America, judging by the 30 layers of pastrami in my sandwich from Carnegie’s Deli on Seventh Avenue.

However, the modern spirit of murdering a good time was much in evidence in Times Square at New Year. The most famous New Year’s celebration in the world has probably long since ceased to be spontaneous when there is the problem of dealing with half-a-million people all trying to be in the same place at the same time. This was compounded by security fears at an all-time high.

Indeed, one congressman, Christopher Shays, went so far as to condemn New York for continuing to hold its events under the threat of attack. He need not have worried because New York’s finest had the place locked down.

People started gathering at 3pm, finding good spots within crowd barriers knowing that at 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.’ (2) Party on, dude.

By midnight, some people 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. Given New York’s famous zero-tolerance policing, there could be no sly nipping into an alleyway to relieve the pressure, so a few hundred thousand people were forced to cross their legs on the subway home.

Still, at least New York had its New Year. In Edinburgh, and in other cities in the UK, New Year was cancelled due to bad weather, with party-goers sent home an hour before midnight. ‘We are just gutted,’ 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.’ (3)

Better safe than sorry, though. Perhaps next year, we should all stay at home and watch it on TV.

(1) Department of Homeland Security
(2) Revellers defy security concerns, BBC News, 1 January 2004
(3) New Year is cancelled, Guardian, 1 January 2004


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