Magazine article The Spectator

American Demands

Magazine article The Spectator

American Demands

Article excerpt

The war on terror means little to a lot of people, but to the itinerant musician at an airport it means ever-increasing hassle, rough treatment and delay. In case you didn't know, the Americans have just invented a new queue the traveller must stand in: in addition to being photographed and fingerprinted on the way into the US, you are now required to be photographed and fingerprinted on the way out of it as well. I won't claim that this is the last straw, because there can be no last straw. We have to make part of our living in the US, therefore we must negotiate all the procedures it throws at us.

If you had said to me 20 years ago that the awfulness of being on a plane could be rivalled by the awfulness of getting to it, I wouldn't have believed you, since by then there wasn't much left for the airlines to take away from their economy passengers once aboard. But 20 years ago it was possible to arrive at the airport an hour before take-off and have time for a relaxed breakfast. It is even conceivable that there were no metal detectors then, though maybe I too readily fantasise. I do vividly remember the day -- not long ago -- that the US authorities introduced compulsory photo ID when checking in. The local people in the queue couldn't believe their ears at such disrespect, held to be very unAmerican. We Europeans were used to it by then, and felt like welcoming our cousins to the real world. It was a piece of condescension I have come to regret.

The flow of impertinent demands on the traveller hits a new level of vacuousness when it is understood that what is 'obvious' to protect everyone's safety in one place is not what is expected in another. The Americans have long insisted, for example, that laptop computers be taken out of their cases when going through the detector. They assume that everyone must see that common sense requires this. But until about a month ago the opposite applied at Heathrow, where, sure enough, if you got it wrong the staff looked at you as though you were a malefactor. Now, suddenly, the American rule applies in London with no explanation (and one can only wonder what happened to cause the reversal). The correct place for our footwear when passing through the sensors is similarly a matter of doubt; and then there is the endless list of implements in our hand luggage (now including, years after 9/11, cigarette lighters) which must be thrown away. …

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