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You look radiant darling

Why full body scans at airports are reducing cleavage and sending dads scurrying for cover. But does this reduce the terror risk?

Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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VijayIT’S OFFICIAL. Full body scans at US airports. No orifice left unexplored, radio waves going where no WiFi has gone before. It’s a brave new world. Indeed. Add to this, incessant, if discreet, pat-downs – commonplace on Japanese trains and Indian buses to ensure women do not pose a security risk – random baggage checks, metal detectors, and passenger profiling. It is a good time then to abandon extra-buxom 40DD Wonderbras and those cucumbers strapped to the thighs. Gel, liquids, and hard objects in secret places are out.

All this to prevent Al Qaeda setting their underwear alight. It’s no laughing matter. Think large, hairy, sweating men, blazing Afghan summers with rigorous marches up hill and down dale to find a decent kebab, and just one set of briefs. It can get messy. No wonder they’re getting their knickers in a twist. Old, itchy underwear can set a trigger-finger off at a wholly inopportune time, which can look terrible on a CV. Burning rogue cotton is the obvious answer. And what better place than in an airplane, where 300 unbelievers can look on in profound disbelief as you proceed to demonstrate the true fire in a man’s loins?

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In Manila, hotel sniffer dogs check out guest genitalia with stoic calm, looking up in bland reproach whenever they come across the Great Unwashed. I’ve been given the look a few times. Keep your undies clean. Bali hotels, at least the ones that consider themselves swish enough, have slobbering dogs that leap into the car and plunge their jowls into your groin with an intimacy unknown since your mother ripped off your teen underwear for a vigorous wash. Men with angled-up mirrors attached to long poles walk grimly around the vehicle wondering how on earth they’ll ever manage to comb their Brylcreemed hair using such shoddy grooming equipment.

When I get stopped at US airports to be told, "You have been profiled, sir," I take it as a singular honour...

When I get stopped at US airports to be told, “You have been profiled, sir,” I am delighted. It is a singular honour. “Will my picture be in TIME along with President Obama’s profile?” Think about it. Millions of passengers but they’ve short-listed ME. As with any VIP, this means delays for others but they all take it in their stride, respectfully leaving me alone in the immigration queue to provide detailed biographical accounts. Immigrations are polite and usually do not wish to learn about my first date or the problems I have finding parking space in Hong Kong.

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In New Delhi, my bag got pulled aside, opened, searched, and sent through the x-ray machine repeatedly. “You are carrying a knife,” the security guard firmly announced. I wagered this was not the case and he flung out the bag’s contents yet again. “Here it is,” he exclaimed in triumph, pointing to an image on the screen. It turned out to be my keychain. It has a metal tag that says, “World’s Greatest Dad”. I had to agree it was a disturbing find. Apart from making my young son an accessory, imagine the commotion if I were to suddenly unsheath my weapon 30,000ft aloft? “Omigod, it’s the WORLD’S GREATEST DAD, RUN…”

At El Al, the Israeli carrier, the focus is not just on finding explosive ordnance but also on potential perpetrators with detailed psychological profiling. The line of questioning begins at check-in. It works. Arguably it is a labour-intensive technique that is difficult to deploy on a large scale, but it offers results using alternative techniques. What about Godzilla though? He doesn’t fit any terrorist profile. He’s not bearded, Islamic, Asian, turbaned, black, Hispanic, Republican, Chechen, white supremacist, or an airline chef.

What about Godzilla? He doesn't fit any terror profile. He's not bearded, turbaned, Republican, Chechen, or an airline chef ...

Full body scanners employ two broad techniques – low dosage backscatter x-rays, and millimetre-wave scans that create a virtual radar image of the passenger by bouncing radio waves off the body. Radiation is miniscule; about the equivalent of two minutes in the air. The young Nigerian who tried to bring down a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines plane had 80g of PETN (a close relative of Semtex, the plastic explosive) sewn into his underwear. However, the acid he tried to inject into the material (to set of the explosive reaction), melted the syringe, and set him aflame.

Do full-body scanners work? They do. Rather well, unfortunately, raising a host of privacy issues. In Britain, civil liberties groups have argued such scanning infringes the Protection of Children Act, which makes it illegal to create “indecent” images of minors.

And does all this make air travel safer or more stressful? People have smuggled into aircraft a chameleon (disguised as a headdress), snakes, birds and live tropical fish. Perhaps airport x-rays could be deemed reimbursable medical claim items, linked to executive health check-ups. Toss in a massage and airports could become the new wellness Meccas. But now with 2012 approaching this is all perhaps moot and may explain why Hong Kong property agents are selling flats at “throat cut” prices.

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