Pacific Media Centre Pacific Media Watch Pacific Journalism Review Asia Pacific Report

Random gel search: Behind enemy lines

Ali Bell, Pacific Media Centre

19 May, 2011

The moral to the random gel search tale: Try not to go through Airport Security when you are really really tired.

OPINION: My trouble is I love tele's Border Patrol. I loved watching it so much, I even applied for a job with Immigration once, until I realised you had to be pretty tough and New Zealand's immigration laws were a lot tougher than I had ever imagined.

I even watch the Australian version of Border Patrol, called Border Security: Australia's Front Line here in my adopted European country. I should have known because so much in life can be a case of "Be careful what you wish for because you just might get it", as when I flew out of New Zealand just recently via Sydney Airport. In transit, I got picked for a '"random gel search".

There must be something about me – I have no idea what it is (and no-one has told me) but I do often get stopped for security checks. I've had my car boot checked for guns in Ohakune, been stopped by police outside my old family farm near Waiouru, and even had my diaries read at airports – once as a teenager coming back to Auckland from LA, and again last year in a suburban Stockholm airport.

The one country where I expect trouble is the US, but no-one thinks I'm dangerous there it seems (and I will always love the US for this among its many other charms). I even had a jolly conversation with a gay security guard in San Francisco about my dubious dress sense – so genuinely jolly we both laughed together as I headed off to board (only to get my diary read 36 hours later in Stockholm on my way to Umeå).

But the one thing I do know from those experiences is, that unlike at the gynaecologist's or at the dentist's, the professionals in question never tell you what they are doing and especially not why. (They do on the tele! And not surprisingly perhaps when everything is in the spotlight. But I gather they really, really don't if you're being ear-marked for Guantanomo Bay.)

Terrorists, threats and reasons
Why don't they tell you we might ask? Because, often, what they are doing does not stand up to reason. I'm not talking the customs and immigration checks, I'm talking about the checks for terrorists and weapons (with the water bottles and zip lighters and the... gel).

What they are doing seems more about keeping certain punters happy (like the US Department of Homeland Security) than anything that makes any sense. Very obvious you might say, and quite right too, even in matters of national security – why would the special police in Ohakune tell me why they suspected me and my two children of being terrorists out to subvert the government?

Or a way more serious international example – why would military police tell an Afghan goat herder it was his binoculars that are putting him away in Guantanomo for many years? Because if they gave an explanation it would sound, you know – prejudiced, ill-thought out and just plain stupid.

Such is the stuff of many security checks. The argument in their defence is they prevent the acts of terror. (Or at least allow us to believe there is something that can be done to prevent the truly random acts of terror.)

A 'how-to' on airport security
OK, so I have yelled out to my kids from the sofa, "Just do anything they ask!'" when I treat Border Patrol as a family airport-behaviour lesson. But there is no accounting for how you might actually behave in real life sometimes, when confronted with airport security.

'How-not-to' on airport security
My trouble was, in this case, I was very, very tired. I had only a couple of hours sleep, as I had to pack up my house of 18 years, and somehow everyone else who had lived in the house with me was very, very busy the weekend the moving van came. I was exhausted and looking forward to sleeping on the plane and watching movies and Curb Your Enthusiasm for two days and nights, that's how tired I was. And, most stupidly on my part – I was taken by surprise. A random gel search?

Random gel
What, I immediately thought, IS a gel search? I know what the word gel means to me – I know hair gel and the gel they put on your belly when you're pregnant and getting an ultrasound, but mainly I have used the word for another kind of gel – the kind you employ internally to kill male reproductive material.

Apart from tired I had been feeling perfectly happy, actually. I had just seen a great movie on the plane from Auckland and had a very passable pinot grigois and chicken lunch. I'd done the conveyor belt and been well served by the little bottle for my handcream, and my liquid lipstick – both in the little see-through bag, and I'd gone through the archway metal detector without a problem.

I was composing a text in my head to send to my daughter and wondering how to get to gate 10 where my onward flight would eventually be waiting. I had 36 hours of flying and three more airports ahead of me, so I was bravely forging ahead, I thought.

Gel search
Then, a serious young man stops me and waves a piece of paper in front of me telling me I have been picked out for a random gel check. I make the associations with the word gel and get confused. Gel? I haven't used a spermicide gel for years.

He gets out something that looks like a cattle prod and something my dentist uses. He is getting stern with me because I am confused about where to put my handbag and cabin luggage.

I put the bags up but now my goat is getting up too. I know this is dangerous. Very dangerous. I have watched Border Patrol many times. Nothing good comes of getting angry with airport security people.

I found myself scoffing at the random part. "Random!Yeah sure! You probably chose me because I look like a nice middle-aged woman" and you have a quota to fill so why not choose someone nice and safe-looking was the unexpressed rest of my sentence.

It is his turn to get confused. (Middle-aged women are not really profiled as dangerous, only as desperate drug mules due to the presence of our orifices and gaping empty wallets, this I know from Border Security.)

Later I hear him complain to a fellow security man that I believe I was chosen because I am a middle-aged woman, as if we are a dangerous group of human beings. Good lord. I am too tired to try and explain anything.

The frisk
He waves this wand over my bags. I'm still wondering what on earth this gel is. He wants to frisk me he says. Do I give my consent?

"Is there really a choice?" I ask, "What happens if I say no?"

"You have to go over there and talk to the airport police," he says.

"Oh yeah right, a choice,' I say. I so know if this was a Nazi death camp I would have been shot by now.

"Do I have to be frisked out here?" I ask. I know I'm really open and talkative, and I really like Swedish men (and women) wandering about with very little clothes on, but I'm suprisingly prudish about my own person.

So I ask to be frisked in a little side room (on the tele they always give you a choice!).

A woman who has come to frisk me has to wait for another female officer as we are going into a little room and who knows what could happen in there? Safety in numbers, apparently.

One of the women tries to make small talk with me and wants to talk about my trip. I am furious that my trip has brought me into this little room to be frisked for gel. (How can you frisk for gel I wonder? Still thinking about the hair and the spermicide.)

So I don't say anything. I'm really mad.

The day before I had to pack up the last of my house with not only my ex-husband but also my mother. Believe me, my temper can get pretty frayed pretty easily after a day like that.

They ask me to sign something. I am too mad to read it properly. I just sign.

I signed something from the serious young man too. It will serve me right if one of the pieces of paper is the broadcasting rights.

So the check is over, and I don't make eye contact with any of them. They are pretty pissed off and unhappy too.

This is a strange interpersonal dynamic, this security check.

There is a pretence of choice but everyone knows there is no choice. Not with airport security.

We are supposed to be civil. We, the travel customers are not really supposed to be upset by this kind of thing, but I find that I am. I really am.

I go sit down at gate 10 and have a wee think. I think it could be good to write about this, as I must not be the only one getting a gel check, and not the only one to feel put upon in such a situation.

So I had better find out what it is about gel that I am being checked for.

The customer is always right and the enemy is always wrong.

After trying to find my way to some generic office marked "Airport Security" and asking many fine and friendly airport staff, a nice man at Information tells me I have to go back to where I was checked in the first place.

I come to the conclusion I don't actually want to see the airport security people again, that I might get trapped in a little room, and maybe miss my onward flight to Europe. Perhaps it would be better to ask questions away from the airport.

And I get a brainwave I should have had all along. When you travel from country to country you are not a customer, not really, you are a potential threat, a stranger that could do harm to people of this "tribe" you are visiting or passing by (in my case), and they are not your tribe, so that is how you sometimes get treated – as an enemy.

Last year, I was exhausted after a long series of delays due to the Icelandic ash-cloud, and was wearing my black beret and leather coat – so maybe I looked a little scary?

I think I looked like Agent 99 and she is a televison good guy, but you never know. (What was the guy looking for in my diary? 'Bomb Umeå airport today'? I really have no idea.)

Tell us about the gel, Agent 99
It's the shampoos, the hand creams and so on we have to put into little bottles and little see-through bags they are after? My friends and a very thorough internet surf later inform me. And that is what they call a gel?

Oh good grief. A pity they don't discuss that on Border Patrol. And a gel (read moisturiser, toothpaste or any such thing more than 100ml) can cause people harm? So they say!

TATP – a highly volatile liquid explosive can be kept suspended in gel apparently, and some folks got stopped before they tried it on in flights from Britain to the US in 2006. You can't help thinking "how silly ", as TATP is almost impossible to control – very hard for me to imagine TATP lasting an Auckland Airport initial security check without exploding, let alone a 38 hour journey across the planet.

But there you go – I said it wasn't going to stand up to reason!

Profiling and 'you people'
Why was I picked? Again, I have no idea – and is a random search ever truly random? Well, we know they are not, otherwise it would be via a count system – you are what is called profiled.

And how do profiles work? I saw a great speech on Border Security by a black Englishman telling the Aussies why he thought he was profiled and how ridiculous the answer "because we have had trouble with you people before" was.

"You people?" he replied. "You mean Englishmen? No I didn't think so you racist..." and so on.

He was wonderful, because it was so obviously true in that case and there it all was on reality TV. I may have been profiled at Sydney airport because I looked innocuous and the security guy had to do something horrible as part of his job for no sensible reason at all (I'm sorry – me suspending TATP in my moisturiser? Really?!) so he thought I would be a good person to treat as a possible threat to fill his quota. (Little did he know, joke my friends.)

The moral to the random gel search tale: Try not to go through Airport Security when you are really really tired. Tired people must somehow look like terrorists. And if you're a Kiwi – don't fly to Europe via Australia.

Other than that I have no advice to give as I still have no idea how to make bombs with gel. (Oh! A friend of mine has just offered to show me – well I never! He found out how from the internet after he got checked for explosives at Auckland Airport.)

And read more thrillers so they don't catch you by surprise. And never never say 'what will happen if I say no?' Because they just might show you.

Post script: Recently in the news – just when Aussie is doing random gel searches, gels will be making a comeback for allowable in cabin luggage on inter-EU-country plane travel.

But try getting spermicide anywhere in NZ these days! With so few contraceptive methods already to choose from, one of our methods has quietly disappeared from pharmacy shelves and the supermarket in the last few years. Even in condoms. What a shame.


About the authors

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Ali Bell

BroadsWord columnist

Ali Bell is a freelance teacher, writer, editor and journalism graduate from AUT University.

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Pacific Media Centre

PMC newsdesk

The Pacific Media Centre - TE AMOKURA - at AUT University has a strategic focus on Māori, Pasifika and ethnic diversity media and community development.


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