I returned home from a trip to England yesterday through London’s Heathrow Airport, and once again I was delayed by airport security. The experience reminded me of the Milgram Experiment, a famous study on how people respond to authority.
In the experiment, there were three roles: a researcher, a student and a teacher. While both the student and the teacher were introduced as volunteers, the true subject of the study was the person in the teacher role, who was given monetary reward to participate ($4 in 1961 or about $31 today). The researcher would explain that the purpose of the study was to explore the affects of negative reinforcement on learning. The teacher would read questions and should the student end up getting a answer wrong, it was the duty of the teacher to administer an electric shock. The strength of the shock would be increased if the student continued to answer questions incorrectly. The subject in the teacher role would be given an example shock at the lowest level before the experiment began.
I was introduced to the experiment in school through a black and white film called Obedience. It must have been in middle school, since I distinctly remember it as a film and not a VCR tape, which is what we had in high school. I can remember sitting in a dark room listening to the whirr of the projector as we watched the results of the experiment.
The teacher and student were separated, and the true subject of the experiment was seated in front of a console with numerous switches. Each switch was supposed to represent a level of shock, from mild shocks in the “green” area on the left side of the console up to extremely strong shocks in the “red” and finally “black” area on the right side (and yes I have no idea why I still see that panel in color when it was a black and white film – perhaps it was described). Now no actual shocks were administered to the student. Instead the panel was tied to a tape recorder that would play back the “student’s” responses. As the shock level increased, the recorded responses would get more desperate, often pleading for the experiment to end. In some variations, the confederate in the student role would even bang on the wall separating them from the teacher. Eventually, the pleading would simply end and be met with silence.
What Milgram found was that a high number of the subjects would be willing to administer shocks at the highest level as long as the researcher told them to do it. One should really experience this film because I was horrified when I saw it. Most of the people, while expressing concern, continued to press the buttons, and I can remember actually crying when one of the subjects simply refused to continue after administering the lowest shock – he was the only one to stand up to the man in the lab coat (at least in the film).
The movie had a strong impact on me and my personal philosophy, and Peter Gabriel even wrote a song about it called Milgram’s 37 with the repeating lyric “We do what we’re told.”
So what reminded me of this experiment at an airport? I’m glad you asked.
I suffer from an eye condition that requires me to put saline solution in my eyes periodically. This becomes more of an issue when I fly due to the dry air in airplanes. Unfortunately, I have to use a special sterile, preservative-free solution that only comes in 118 mL (4 oz) bottles. The bottles are sealed to prevent contamination.
Back when I had only two of my three readers, I ran into a problem transferring at LHR on a trip to Portugal. The liquid limit in Europe is 100mL and they refused to let me through the airport with my solution (even though it is stamped with “TSA Approved” on the bottle). I would say about 50% of the time when traveling internationally someone spots the bottle, but in every single airport outside of Heathrow, including Bangkok and Dubai, the security people have accepted my explanation and let me take it through.
After my last problem at this airport, I sought out the policy that would allow me to take this liquid on the plane. I found this in regard to medicine on the Heathrow website:
Liquid, aerosol or gel medicines in containers over 100ml must be carried separately, together with supporting documentary proof of authenticity, such as a prescription or letter from your doctor.
I had my eye doctor write me a letter explaining the situation and I carry it with me when I travel. Luckily, I haven’t had to use it.
As I was going through screening, the lady noted that my saline bottle was above the limit. They had also held my bag for additional screening (I travel with a lot of wires and they sometimes call it a “spaghetti bag”) so I told her that I could produce from that bag a letter from my doctor explaining that I needed that liquid for a medical reason and that it was only available in a 118mL bottle. She sat the bottle aside and called over a supervisor.
Mr. Bally Balkar (an STL or Service Team Leader) arrived and I dutifully showed him my letter. He seemed very confused, although the letter explained in detail why I needed the sterile solution in that particular container. He suggested, as did the lady the last time this happened, that I could go to Boots and get a smaller bottle. Apparently the English system of education tends to skip over the definition of “sterile” or maybe he was out that day. I patiently explained that the whole reason I didn’t do that in the first place, such as I do with other liquids, was due to the fact that the liquid both had to be sterile and could not contain preservatives, and I have neither the equipment nor the expertise to transfer it on my own, much less in the departure terminal of an airport.
He called over his supervisor, a Mr. Harry Singh (also an STL), who very solemnly examined my letter and then proceeded to suggest the same things Mr. Balkar had done. At this point I realized that despite my having followed the procedures for an exemption, there was no way that I was going to get that bottle (which, I should point out, only contained about 30mL of liquid at this time) on the plane. I decided to see if either Mr. Balkar or Mr. Singh possessed the ability to reason.
Me: I’m a little confused. I have followed the procedure. Why am I not allowed to carry this bottle on?
STL: Well, this letter doesn’t look like a prescription.
Me: The liquid itself is not prescribed. My use of this particular liquid is, however, necessary for the health of my eyes. And in the US you usually have to surrender the prescription when obtaining the medicine.
STL: But this is not a prescription.
Me: I understand that, but it is a letter signed by my doctor on official letterhead explaining why I need it. Isn’t that sufficient?
STL: But it is a year old.
Me: It’s dated April 15th, 2013, which makes it a little less than 11 months old, but as my condition hasn’t changed I didn’t see the need to bother my doctor for a new letter.
Me: I’m confused. You let the family ahead of me through with litres of baby formula and didn’t even swab it for chemical traces, yet you are saying that my doctor’s letter isn’t sufficient?
STL: Well, they were traveling with a baby.
Me: So you are saying that terrorists wouldn’t think to travel with a baby?
Me: Here, let me demonstrate the safety of this liquid. (I open the bottle and squirt a bit into my mouth). See?
Balkar: Oh, if you’ll finish that here we can let you go.
Me: (incredulous silence)
As I had now been at security for over 30 minutes and really wanted to leave, I settled for getting the names of the inspectors who denied me and I plan to file a complaint with the airport as well as with my airline. I am a frequent traveler through Heathrow but I’ll change airlines if this is not addressed. If anyone reading this knows of someone else who might be sympathetic to my story, say a UK government agency or a newspaper, please drop me a note with the contact details.
I both pity and fear men like Mr. Bally Balkar and Mr. Harry Singh. I pity their cowardice. In much like the subjects in the Milgram experiment, they were so afraid to make a mistake in the eyes of an authority figure that they would ignore overwhelming evidence that their actions were wrong.
I also fear them, as under a slightly different set of circumstances these are the men who drag families and children into vans in the middle of the night for “re-education”.
We do what we’re told.