"If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all." ~ Virginia Woolf
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Last week I waited for a Westbound flight to be called, from a gate in London Heathrow, and happened to sit next to a black lady, somewhat overweight, in a dark uniform. I made conversation with, "Are you joining this flight?"
"No," she said, "I work here"--meaning, presumably, Heathrow. "I'm a profiler."
"Really?" I said, in my best emulation of Hugh Grant and pretending total ignorance. "What does a profiler do?"
"We stand at the on-ramp as passengers board planes, and watch for any bad people." She went on to say that profiling there was quite intense for "America flights", more so than for others; at the time there were two planes nearby about to board for Cape Town and Johannesburg, but most attention was on our America flight.
Well, nobody wants to be caught in an eggshell seven miles over mid-Atlantic in the company of a bad person with explosive intent, so I could not express much against that. But I pressed my luck and asked "How can you spot a bad person?"
The lady spoke with that delightful sing-song accent typical of West Africans and West Indians, in this case I think Ghana , though I can't be sure since I'm out of practice, because after not one of her sentences did she append the surplus monosyllable "Mon." She replied that she couldn't answer that, because the techniques of profiling were secret.
"Oh go on," I persisted," surely you can share just one itsy-bitsy government secret with little old me?"
She declined again, but did part with one all the same. She hunched her shoulders, drooped her head forward and shot the furtivest glances right and left that I've ever seen. "We do look for people like this" she said. It may have been a well-practiced joke, but it was funny all the same.
"You know," I continued, "might it not be simpler just to throw out your government so that nobody is enraged enough, by what it does, to want to destroy airplanes and kill people?"
To that she gave no reply, possibly because it contained too many radical concepts to be digested in one gulp, or possibly because she knew just what I meant but could not acknowledge, in loyalty to her employer and in eagerness to keep her job, its good sense. I couldn't tell which, but as well as being sociable and amusing she was not dumb. At any rate, I broke the silence by changing the topic a bit.
"I've heard," I asked, "that Britain has more CCTV cameras watching people than any country in the world, for its size of population. Is that correct?"
"Oh yes," she replied, "haven't you seen that one over there, in the fork of the column?"
Here I'll digress to explain that the "column" was a zany steel structure helping Terminal Five to defy gravity, angled at about 45 degrees to the vertical and having lesser tubes branching out; the building is one of the ugliest I've seen and its support structure reminded me a little of the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, except that in London the tubes are decently hidden inside the outer shell, as befits proper British reserve.
"And another there, in that column?" she continued, "and a third, over there? And look across the hall, do you see those two, facing right at us? And up high in that wall, there's a camera hidden in most of those lamp fittings."
Now, I'm not at all sure whether in that last bit she was having me on. There were a dozen lamp fittings, presumably for spotlights to brighten things up after dusk, and they looked just like ordinary lamp fittings to me. Why hide the cameras, when others are in the plain view of any who know where to look? But she kept such a straight face, I could not tell.
"Amazing," I said. "But how on earth do the scrutineers stay sane, while reviewing all the massive amount of videotape all these cameras produce?"
"Oh, it doesn't work that way. There are people right now, scores of them, peering at their screens as we speak, watching us." She didn't use the phrase "real time" but that's what she meant. I indicated being suitably impressed.
An errand then called her away, but she left behind a newspaper and a colleague. Its headlines declared that there was a "drug problem" in a British Army base in Afghanistan . "That's funny," I said to the colleague. "These lads were put through all that expensive training and loaded up with the latest lethal weapons and sent to serve the Queen where the poppies grow, and they end up trading with the locals and getting peacefully high."
"Yes," responded the colleague, but she lacked her companion's ocular twinkle, so I didn't press my point.
Perhaps it was just as well, for said companion had a surprise for me: the flight was called, we arrived at the top of the ramp where she and her colleague were quietly profiling passengers, and she said to my wife "You, you can get on the plane, go, go! But this man" (indicating your humble servant and speaking to her colleague) "isn't going anywhere. He can stand over there!" She pronounced it "Ova there" as only a West African momma can.
We all had a good laugh, and bade her farewell, and enjoyed a good flight with no known bad people, and upon arrival were fingerprinted, face-scanned, passport-stamped and told without a hint of a smile to have a nice evening. But before it began, I had encountered that rarest of creatures, a government employee with a sense of humor.