We heard the voice before we saw its owner, a sound midway between a barking seal and a sergeant-major drilling a squad of raw recruits. Welcome to immigration control at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam.
We had just flown back from Hong Kong with KLM between Christmas and New Year 2015 and were in transit for Edinburgh. We’d been on the go for 18 hours, 12 of them seated in cramped economy class, battery chicken style, with barely room to retrieve anything from a skirt or trouser pocket and where going to the toilet was the only possible form of exercise. We hadn’t had much kip. Stiff and exhausted, the last thing we needed, or were actually expecting, since we had already gone through security before boarding our plane in Hong Kong, was this brutal wake-up call.
Patiently we shuffled round the coiling trackway, like prisoners in an exercise yard, until the voice, now incarnated in a female official, directed us peremptorily which security queue to join. Your brain is numb. You say nothing. You do what you’re told.
I hadn’t experienced the glass-enclosed, full-body scanner before. Fitting my feet to the painted yellow footprints, apparently designed for a six-foot something, big-foot male (I’m five foot three, size 4.5 shoes), and holding my hands skywards felt like a public violation. I emerged to get a row, a loud, uncompromising row, for having a few folded tissues in one skirt pocket and a folded spectacle lens-cleaner in the other. You nod but say nothing, go with the flow.
My husband’s cabin-case sailed through the luggage scanner. Mine did not. Nor did my handbag. But before that was dealt with, a young couple with a tiny baby ahead of me were being given a thorough basting by another loud, insensitively rude, female official. I don’t have children, but have observed often enough the issues of friends and strangers travelling with them. Long-distance flights are even worse. Everything in the young couple’s bags was taken out for inspection and baby liquids checked that they actually were what they purported to be. They too got a row for not having those liquids in a tidy transparent plastic bag. The process took an age. The wife, cradling her fretful baby, accepted it meekly. Her Chinese husband, busily manoeuvring a push-chair and shouldering another bag full of baby stuff, was clearly annoyed, but swallowed his spit.
When it came to my turn an older official, milder in manner but no less determined, replaced his appalling colleague. Could he look inside my handbag? What if I refused? He felt his way into every internal pocket, opened my wallet, fingered the coins and all my cards (credit, store, Waterstone’s, Historic Scotland, etc), and minutely examined every souvenir in my cabin-case: a bar of chocolate, a clutch of fridge magnets. Fortunately, I’d removed my small bottle of spectacle lens-cleaner, so was spared another row. I have no idea what he expected to find in each dusty crevice of my hand-luggage. In fact, I even dared to ask him, since short of using a microscope, nothing escaped his attention. But no explanation or apology was offered. Eventually I was just brusquely nodded through.
Arriving in Edinburgh some three and a half hours later we faced the same coiling, exercise-yard shuffle to present our passports to a phalanx of UK Border police. This time the contacts were civil, but the long delays meant that we missed the last tram (at 10.58pm) and faced the choice between an estimated minimum half-hour wait in a taxi queue or lugging our cases on board the airport bus surrounded by half the youth of Europe arriving for Hogmanay. We remembered fondly the endless stream of taxis drawing up for passengers outside Chek Lap Kok. Way to go, Edinburgh, if you want to strut your stuff on the global stage. But that’s another story.
The manner of our welcome at Schiphol, occurring between recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, was a shock. However, since then, only this past week, an Egyptair plane, en route from Paris Charles de Gaulle to Cairo, has crashed in the Mediterranean, just inside Egyptian air space south-east of Crete. There were no survivors. Sixty six people died. No one yet knows whether it was a terrorist bomb or just one of those accidents, cause so far unknown. If it proves to have been a bomb, then presumably the robust passenger checks at Charles de Gaulle did not pick it up or its source was elsewhere.
Clearly there is no easy answer to the issue of airport security at such a time in major European capitals. These officials are only doing their job, as they perceive it. However, though it may seem counter-intuitive, even naive, to suggest this, I do wonder whether this jack-booted, everyone-of-you-is-a-potential-suspect-until-proven-otherwise approach is the best, or even the only, way to do it? We put up with it because we have no choice and tend to suppose that if it were not done at all the consequences would be much worse. A small price to pay, in other words. I doubt there were any potential terrorists on our flight and probably not much criminal intent of any other kind either. The treatment of the young couple with the baby seemed outrageous. Was I minutely searched this time because I had too much stuff in my hand-luggage for the machine to detect exactly what was there? Or was it just to demonstrate to anyone tempted to test the system the thoroughness of the search process? Whatever it actually was, it felt like a grotesque form of overkill.
Confronted with the reality of grieving relatives I do not wish to suggest that a short period of stressful inconvenience should be grounds for foregoing passenger checks altogether. The attacks are random, can come from anywhere at any time. But there is no excuse for insensitive handling of bona fide passengers. Travelling can be both risky and tiring at the best of times. Currently it is poisoned by paranoia. Given the amount of intelligence, of digitised information, there must be about all of us in the public domain, would it be too much to hope that in the future more likely suspects could be more accurately targeted, instead of being missed, as they so often seem to be, resulting in yet more attacks and even more repressive behaviour towards the rest of us?