Monday, February 27, 2006

A brush with the law at Heathrow an ominous sign?

I wonder if Jenni Russell, writing in the Guardian on Saturday, about what she found to be a scary encounter with officials and police at Heathrow, would accept Mr Blair's claims to be protecting liberties. After two British Airways customer service employees proved unhelpful and obstructive she raised her voice to them "The sign behind you says you're here to help customers; why are you being so unhelpful?" "Right," said the older man, gleefully. "You're being threatening. I'm calling the police."

"Within minutes, to my shock, two policemen were at my side. They were grave. One was suspicious; the other, eventually, sympathetic. But I was left, just as the BA staff had intended, feeling intimidated and powerless."

A friend stranded with a young baby at a train station explained a similar situation where beligerant staff summoned armed police when she complained.

"In both of these incidents, the normal rules of customer service had been suspended and replaced by something alarming: an assumption, by those in uniform, that a member of the public who questions them can now be treated as a potential threat...

Dangerously for all of us, the fear of terrorism is legitimising intimidating behaviour by petty officials and agents of the state. It has become an excuse for bullying people when they step out of obedient lines...

I fear that many of us are failing to see the danger we are now in, precisely because we have grown up in a largely benign state. We still trust in the good sense and reasonableness of its agents, and the rest of officialdom. We don't understand that that has been sustained only by the existence of our legal rights, and by a respect for our freedom of action. We don't see the lesson of every society: that if you do not place constraints on official power, its instinct is to grow. Our tolerant world is disappearing, and it is only when many more of us start running up against that reality that we will realise what we have lost."

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