I wasn’t unaware of the commotion in the media about the upcoming fifth anniversary of the so-called 9/11 atrocities. I hadn’t deliberately chosen to fly to India on the 11th September, 2006. I was going there for the launch of a collection of my short stories, translated into Hindi, and the publishers had a reading tour organised, taking in venues around Delhi and Mumbai. That was excitement enough for a writer, enough to keep his mind off threats, and portents, and significant dates.
So I didn’t pass much heed in late August when the rumour of a threatened attack on an aeroplane entered the media. The authorities were taking the threat seriously, though. A ‘spectacular’ on the fifth anniversary of the Twin Towers event was not to be discounted. Reports suggested that a suicide bomber might try to assemble an explosive in the aircraft cabin by mixing two liquids brought on board in separate bottles.
But I had other things to think about, a visa, currency exchange, medical precautions. With all of these ticked from my list, I set off without a care. In Dublin Airport I scoured the shops for suitable presents for my hosts, and in the Duty-Free shop there was a special offer on two litres of Irish Whiskey. That was perfect. Alcohol was scarce and dear in India, as I knew from an earlier visit. Armed with two litres of Irish I would be a very welcome guest indeed.
I flew out from Dublin to Heathrow having left myself several hours to catch the connecting flight to Delhi. Just as well. Heathrow was the epicentre of this security scare. When I arrived in Terminal Two I could sense the tension. There was a feeling of disorder, not usual in airports. I passed no heed. I had to get to Terminal Four so I caught the shuttle. Arriving at Terminal Four, however, I was whacked by the sight of thousands of passengers milling around in front of an extensive security screen.
I hadn’t expected a security check between the two terminals, but luckily I had plenty of time. So I began filing towards the screening area. Then vague memories of the half-digested news stories began to surface and congeal in my head. The word ‘liquids’ began to shake a rattle right between my ears. And I looked down at my right hand carrying two litres of the best Irish whiskey.
When I reached the first security official, who looked like a bewildered soldier on sentry, I decided to play naive. I explained that I had bought the duty-free whiskey in Dublin Airport and was on my way to Delhi. He smiled ruefully but sympathetically. ‘Not a chance, mate. They’re confiscating baby’s milk, so you don’t stand a chance’.
‘Can I appeal to anyone?’ I asked.
He looked around the chaos in which he was engulfed. ‘Go ahead to the girl at the start of the electronic screening. She will know. But I am certain you can’t take that through.’
So I followed on to the girl he nodded at. ‘No, sir, I’m sorry, but we have to confiscate that,’ was her immediate reply to my query.
‘But I bought these bottles at Dublin Airport. Here is the receipt. And look the seals have not been broken.’ She looked a little uncertain.
‘Ask my colleague on the other side’, she said, and placed my two-bottle pack in a tray.
On the other side of the scan, her colleague, a corpulent black man of pleasant demeanour, smiled. ‘Where do you think you are going with that?’ He laughed. And I gave him my story too.
‘No, no, my friend, you have to leave that here with us.’ And he laughed again.
‘But it doesn’t seem sensible, because the seals are still intact. Can I speak to whoever is in charge. There might be a case for letting them through.’
The black man shook his head. He nodded behind him at a pretty white woman. ‘She’s in charge. Try your luck with her. But you don’t stand a chance.’
The supervisor too looked benign among the chaos. She stared at me as I related my sad tale once more. She listened, but kept staring. ‘How did you get those bottles through all this security?’ she asked in disbelief.
‘They weren’t sure, and they said to check with you. If it’s ok with you, it’s ok with them.’
She almost snorted a laugh. ‘Well if it’s ok with them, it’s ok with me.’
Scarcely believing what I heard, I thanked her, gathered my belongings and proceeded quickly before she had a chance to change her mind. How lively I stepped towards the aircraft. I had my two bottles of Irish to share with my friends, but better still, I had a story, a great story of how I got two litres of whiskey through Heathrow Airport when they were confiscating orange juice, and Coca Cola, and even water. It was a story to dine out on.
But the flight from London to Delhi left me time to think. The faces of those lovely people in Heathrow, trying to do their job, haunted me. What if I had been a terrorist? They had allowed their good nature to override their instructions. And if I had had nasty intentions, they would have been responsible for letting me through. That is where we are all vulnerable – in our humanity. And to be safe and secure we would have to set aside our humanity. Do we do that? Do we want to do that? Oh, let us not, let us not.
By the time the plane reached Delhi, I was hoping that Airport Security there might confiscate the bottles. I no longer had the taste for them nor for the story of how I coaxed them through the tightest security in the world.