Flying into Sydney airport for a transfer onto another flight to New Zealand recently, I discovered to my horror that the paranoid fantasies of the counter-terrorism imagination had claimed my fine single malt duty free whiskey as their latest victim. It turns out that following the UK liquid bomb plot, the Australian authorities decided that even when passengers are only in transit through the airport, they cannot take liquids over 100mls into the transit area and onto another plane – even if it is in a sealed duty-free bag and has transited safely through other countries and planes. I know this for a fact because I bought some delicious (and expensive) whiskey for a friend in New Zealand at Birmingham airport, safely transited it through Dubai, only for it to be confiscated (officially stolen) at Sydney airport – even though I was flying on to New Zealand!
The point is that this has almost nothing to do with security, even if it may have started out that way. This is clear from any reasoned analysis of the situation, namely, that if I was a terrorist carrying a liquid bomb in a fake duty-free officially-sealed bag, I could have detonated it over Sydney as we came in to land – or in the airport while I waited for security. If the authorities were that concerned at the risk, they would make other countries follow the same rules and not allow flights into Sydney that broke those rules (as the US does). A partial, half-hearted security regime is no security regime at all. Moreover, if the authorities are genuinely worried that explosives could be smuggled in via duty free whiskey, then they must also be extremely worried that a man put explosives in his underwear and flew all the way to America before trying to blow himself up. If they were really concerned about explosive risks, then Sydney airport would make every passenger remove their underwear for an explosives check.
We can also be sure that this is not necessarily about a reasonable response to a security risk, because there are simple procedures which could be adopted (like locking the doors to the pilot’s cabin in the case of hijacking). For example, in my case, they could ask me to take a drink of the whiskey to ensure it wasn’t liquid explosive; I would be very happy to do this. Or, they could have someone whose job it was to check that duty free alcohol really was alcohol by tasting a little of each bottle that passed through. Of course, they would probably need to rotate these people frequently and organise an AA meeting. Actually, a simple explosives test, which many airports use randomly on passengers anyway, could solve the question. Or, a simple security seal from airport security in the world’s main airports would also work. My point is that there are simple and reasonable measures which could be taken to reduce the sheer idiocy of some of the security measures currently in place – like confiscating my whiskey! The authorities have actually demonstrated that they can show a reasonable response when they realize that the alternative is too costly and too disruptive compared to the risk – as in the case of underwear bombs. Why not the whiskey, then?
But this is the catastrophic imagination we now have to live with, where paranoia makes policy and the security officers know they’re trapped in a Kafkaesque world but simply have to follow the rules (as the guys at Sydney security admitted to me). On average, there is one terrorist attack on a flight for every 17 million flights, and many of these attacks are unsuccessful. I’ve written about the factual risks of terrorism before; the real risk does not justify the overreaction and paranoid response, especially in terms of my whiskey. (Why must they take it out on people’s whiskey? For God’s sake, think of the children!) But the reality is that facts and reason no longer count for much in this new world; the heightened imagination of security officials is all that is needed to turn your whiskey (or maybe vodka or gin, you never know) into a security threat. And it seems that once an idiotic policy is in place, it is harder to change it back than to simply keep it going – a case of inertia and path dependency. Or maybe it has something to do with the security companies that have to charge a tidy premium for confiscating all that terrorist whiskey – not to mention the people who get to share the free confiscated whiskey at the end of the week? (I hope my stolen whiskey makes them puke! I’m not bitter about this at all, seriously.)
My question is: when will we – the whiskey drinkers; I mean, the People of the World – stop putting up with this stupidity and idiocy? How should we resist it? What are the tactics for fighting back? Next time, I think I will sit at security and drink the whole bottle of whiskey, sharing it with fellow passengers, rather than let them confiscate it. Either that, or take off my underpants which have travelled 24 hours from the UK and put them through the x-ray machine. I have to do something; I simply don’t want to live like this anymore. When good whiskey falls victim to counter-terrorism policy, you know we have reached the end of civilized society. It’s time to stand up and be counted, people – for the whiskey!