Marshalling public fears

America and Britain are running the skies as if every plane were a potential missile and every passenger a potential terrorist.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

British officials are planning to put air marshals on board selected flights to the USA. The marshals will carry low-velocity handguns that can kill a man but will not pierce the outer skin of an aeroplane. They will dress as ordinary passengers, and could alert pilots to dangers by pressing alarm buttons attached to their seats. They may have the ability, like their Israeli counterparts, to instruct pilots to loop the plane, causing any boxcutter-wielding terrorist to fall over. So flights will soon have plain-clothed cops wielding guns, sounding alarms and turning planes upside down – and this is supposed to make us feel more secure?

Of course the marshal plan has only heightened public fears. Tom Ridge, America’s secretary for homeland security, asked selected foreign airlines to employ marshals in order to counter the threat of an al-Qaeda attack, or risk being denied access to American airspace. The plan looks more like a counter-terrorist gesture than a response to a specific threat of attack, an attempt to pre-empt and calm public concerns before they emerge. But in the process, American and British officials have created public concern. Whatever al-Qaeda’s current capabilities might be, the marshal debacle shows that we are more than capable of terrorising ourselves.

Why are US officials insisting on air marshals on flights from abroad now? The last recorded attempt to execute a terrorist attack on a US-bound flight was in December 2001, when British ‘shoe-bomber’ Richard Reid tried to blow up a plane flying from Paris to Miami. Passengers overpowered Reid as he tried to set his trainers alight. Who’s to say that alert passengers won’t try the same thing on a suspicious-looking man in plain clothes who reaches for a button under his seat? Or on someone who stands up with a loaded gun and says ‘It’s okay, I’m an air marshal’? How could we be sure?

Since the 9/11 attacks of 2001, the number of undercover air marshals on domestic American flights has grown exponentially – from 33 employed at the time of 9/11 to thousands flying today. Yet this army of marshals has encountered no terrorism or even attempted terrorism: over the past two years they have assisted in the arrest of 28 people, most of them ‘deranged passengers’, none of them terrorists. (During the same period, there have been 600 reports of misconduct by air marshals, including improper use of government credit cards and abusive behaviour towards airline staff.) According to air marshal director Tom Quinn: ‘Success is not in making an arrest; success is the absence of hijackings.’ (1) So the fact there have been no hijackings justifies massive further efforts to guard against potential hijackings….

According to one report, air marshals are being brought in because there has been ‘increased “chatter” in intercepted al-Qaeda communications, suggesting that terrorists may be planning a hijacking plot to rival the attacks of 11 September’ (2). Yet US officials have been fretting over ‘chatter’ and the potential for ‘another 9/11’ for two years. In December 2001, the FBI warned that ‘al-Qaeda chatter is at unprecedented levels’. In November 2002, the US Justice Department said US intelligence had ‘detected the highest chatter among terrorists since 9/11’. In May 2003, ABC News reported: ‘West is on the edge after spike in al-Qaeda chatter….’ Terrorist ‘chatter’ has rung loudly in the ears of US officials since 9/11, but has resulted in no attacks on American soil.

According to the Scotsman, the decision to install marshals ‘follows last Wednesday’s cancellation of six Air France flights between Paris and Los Angeles over fears they might be hijacked’ (3). The French prime minister ordered the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day flights to Los Angeles to be cancelled after US officials warned that al-Qaeda may have been plotting to hijack one or more of the planes to use them as missiles against an American city.

Yet the French investigation into the passengers of the six flights has turned up nothing. Natalie Loiseau, a spokesperson for the French Embassy in Washington, said: ‘All passengers have been screened and questioned, but no one has been arrested’ – though the 1,800 passengers who were due to fly to Los Angeles for Christmas are understandably upset at having their flights cancelled and then being screened for terrorist links (4). A French judge has refused to start an inquiry based on the evidence gathered so far. US officials also gave the French the name of a Tunisian man who was due to fly to Los Angeles, who apparently holds a pilot’s licence and may have terrorist connections – but the French discovered that the man was not in Paris on the night of the flights, much less on any of the six planes. He was in Tunisia.

There is little hard evidence that any al-Qaeda types have been on US-bound planes since December 2001, or that they have tried to get on planes, or even that they have cast-iron plans to use planes for an attack in the near future. Yet US and UK officials now insist that flights should have air marshals Just In Case – marshals who, if America’s recent experience is anything to go by, cause more problems on flights than passengers do.

Under the headline ‘Living dangerously, but what other option is there?’, British commentator Martin Kettle today argues: ‘Exactly where and how terrorism will come to Britain is unknowable. That it will come here somehow is surely not. Planes are the most obvious means….’ (5) On this basis – of unknowable threats and wild speculation – the skies will now be run as if every plane was a potential missile and every passenger a potential terrorist.

Al-Qaeda supporters may or may not be planning to board an aeroplane somewhere to launch an attack on America or Britain. But they needn’t bother; officials in the West have already instilled fear and loathing in the skies in al-Qaeda’s name.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on terror

(1) Ridge sees ling-term role for air marshals, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Washington Post, 26 November 2003

(2) US expands air marshal plan abroad, Charlie Savage, Boston Globe, 30 December 2003

(3) Passengers should feel safer with air marshals, David Capitanchik, Scotsman, 29 December 2003

(4) Air France terror inquiry founders, Charlie Savage, Boston Globe, 27 December 2003

(5) Living dangerously, but what other option is there?, Martin Kettle, Guardian, 30 December 2003

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Topics Politics


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