Saturday, February 26, 2011

Bad Rules, Badly Applied

Richard Dawkins on the stupidity of airport security screening, and the implacability of authorities who hew to the rulebook...

I'm writing this on a plane, having just passed through Security at Heathrow airport. An obviously nice young mother was distraught because she wasn't allowed to take on board a tub of ointment for her little girl's eczema. The security man was polite but firm. She wasn't even permitted to spoon a reduced quantity into a smaller jar. I couldn't quite grasp what was wrong with that helpful suggestion, but the rule book was implacable. All the official could do was offer to fetch his supervisor. The supervisor came and, equally polite but firm, she too was regretfully bound by the rulebook's hoops of steel.

There was nothing I could do, and it was no help that I recommended a website where a knowledgeable chemist explains, in delightfully comedic detail, what it would take to manufacture a workable bomb from binary liquid ingredients, working for several hours in the aircraft loo, using copious quantities of ice, in relays of champagne coolers helpfully supplied by the cabin staff.

The prohibition against taking more than very small quantities of liquids or unguents on planes is demonstrably ludicrous. It started as one of those "Look at us, we're taking decisive action" displays, the ones designed to cause maximum inconvenience to the public in order to make the dimwitted Dundridges who rule our lives feel important and look busy.

Same with having to take our shoes off (another gem of official wallyhood that must have Bin Laden chuckling triumphantly into his beard) and all those other classic exercises in belated stable door shutting. But let me get to the general principle. Rulebooks are themselves put together by human judgments. Often bad human judgments, but in any case judgments by humans who were probably no wiser or better qualified to make them than the individuals who subsequently have to put them into practice out in the real world.

No sane person, witnessing that scene at the airport, seriously feared that this woman was planning to blow herself up on a plane. The fact that she was accompanied by children gave us the first clue. Supporting evidence trickled in from the brazen visibility of her face and hair, from her lack of a Koran, prayer mat or big black beard, and finally from the manifest absurdity of the notion that her little tub of ointment could ever, in a million years, be alchemically magicked into a high explosive - certainly not in the cramped laboratory facilities afforded by an aircraft loo. The security official and his supervisor were human beings who obviously wished they could behave decently, but they were powerless: stymied by a rulebook. Nothing but a rulebook, which, because it is made of paper and unalterable ink rather than of flexible human brain tissue, is incapable of discretion, compassion or humanity.
Dawkins goes on -- read the whole thing here.