Terror: ‘f***ing calm down’ and carry on
The Lib-Con government’s declaration of war on printer ink cartridges suggests that the politics of fear did not leave office with New Labour.
First they came for our shoes. Then they came for our bottles of water, medicine and mascara. Now they come for our printer ink cartridges. What will the UK and Western authorities target next in their ludicrous war on terror at the airports?
The pseudo-security measures that are now hastily imposed on air travel as a reaction to each terror alert bring to mind the generals who pinned their hopes for protecting France from invasion by Nazi Germany on the old static defence system of the Maginot line, constructed after the First World War. By the time of the Second World War, the new mobile German army simply deployed its blitzkrieg tactics to go around the Maginot’s dusty defences and waltz into Paris.
The security authorities today are not, of course, facing an enemy comparable to the Nazis. But like those generals of yore, they are always fighting the last battle, engaging in a fantasy war rather than facing reality. Thus they impose one knee-jerk ban or restriction after another, in a futile effort to prevent the attack or plot that has already happened – and probably already failed. The only effect of these retrospective security measures is to cause the air transport system to seize up even further, and to reinforce the politics of fear and paralysis.
It is now almost nine years since Richard Reid, the idiotic British-born ‘shoe bomber’, tried to light explosives in his sweaty trainer on a flight from Paris to Miami in December 2001. Yet countless air passengers are still required to remove their shoes for scanning before being allowed to board flights in the UK and elsewhere. (Interestingly at Israel’s Tel Aviv airport, where I discovered the electronic and physical screening of passengers is second to none, nobody mentioned any nonsense about taking off my shoes.) And it is more than four years since the police arrested the ‘liquid bomb plotters’ in London in August 2006, who supposedly hoped to blow up transatlantic flights with explosives concealed in drinks bottles. Yet still millions of air passengers are required to surrender all drinks at the security barrier and are restricted in what small amounts of potions and lotions they can carry on board. (Expensive drinks bought after the security checks, in the airport’s shops, are naturally a different matter.)
Perhaps the only wonder is that the authorities have not yet insisted on inspecting all of our underwear, after the infamous ‘pants bomber’ Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried and failed to explode a bomb in his smalls during a flight from Amsterdam to Detroit on Christmas Day 2009, succeeding only in burning his own arse.
Now the risible pattern is repeating itself, after two sets of explosives concealed in printer ink cartridges were discovered in Dubai and the UK respectively, apparently en route from Yemen to Chicago. Once the find on a freight plane at East Midlands airport had been confirmed, the British security state clanked into action with meetings of the government’s top-level COBRA emergency committee, briefings about this being the most sophisticated and serious terror threat the country has faced, ministerial warnings of more attacks to come and prime ministerial pledges to ‘cut out the terrorist cancer that lurks in the Arabian peninsula’.
And as sure as landing follows take-off, so this security PR circus was inevitably followed by the announcement of another ‘new crackdown’ on air freight security, to include a ban on passengers carrying large printer ink cartridges in their hand luggage. Since relatively few passengers want to print out big wads of paper over the Atlantic, this is likely to cause slightly less inconvenience than the other retro measures. But it is just as nonsensical in practice and as political in intent. Everybody knows that it would be impossible today to screen all of the thousands of tons of air freight for every type of explosive without bringing international commerce to a halt. Yet what matters to the authorities is that they be seen to act, to do something/anything, regardless of how ridiculous it might seem to some.
Away from all of the hype about rising risk levels, a more level-headed view of recent events might surely see this flop of an attack as a sign of the real weakness of the supposedly powerful international terrorist conspiracy. These and other recent attacks now appear to be side-effects of local conflicts in such marginal states as Yemen and Somalia, rather than part of any grand clash between the West and something called al-Qaeda. Any notion of the world being held to ransom by a few Yemeni students armed with postage stamps seems absurd.
The fact that the terrorists tried to attack freight planes rather than passenger airliners this time also looks like a sign of weakness, a retreat in the face of serial failures since 9/11. It is a long way from bringing down the twin towers in New York to failing to blow up a cargo container in the east Midlands. Despite all of this, of course, another successful terror attack remains perfectly possible. But the loose groupings of people such as Reid and Abdulmutallab looks increasingly like a conspiracy of dunces.
However, the one thing we cannot expect to find after a terror scare is any evidence of a measured and sensible response. Instead, we must be exposed to the loudest possible publicity bang around a bomb that never exploded, with even an ultimately successful intelligence operation being treated as proof that we are in mortal danger. The Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaders who form the coalition government came to office apparently determined to distance themselves from the shrill security scares and ‘organised paranoia’ of the New Labour era. Even Ed Miliband, the new New Labour leader, now concedes that his party got the ‘balance’ between anti-terror laws and civil liberties wrong in government. Yet with the first whiff of explosive in a packing case, the familiar stench of the politics of fear engulfs the system.
Despite the presence of all those alleged liberals and freedom-lovers in government, it was left to Michael O’Leary, the maverick capitalist boss of the budget airline Ryanair, to warn the authorities against ‘pandering’ to the postal terrorists by imposing even more clunky security measures. ‘They are laughing away in their caves this morning at the prime minister and his security team meeting to discuss printer cartridges’, said O’Leary as the Cobra emergency committee met. ‘Any time that we have one of these [Cobra meetings] the first thing that goes out of the window is common sense. As far as I can tell some nutter in Yemen posted two parcel bombs and has managed to have the prime minister meeting Cobra as if we are all under attack. Fucking calm down’, said O’Leary.
Mr Ryanair has hard-headed commercial reasons for taking such a liberal stand, given the heavy price his industry has paid for the security measures imposed after the other high-profile incidents of recent years. But his call to ‘fucking calm down’ seems particularly timely. You cannot move in London souvenir shops these days for posters and coffee mugs adorned with the Second World War slogan ‘Keep Calm And Carry On’. Yet our leaders seem incapable of doing either properly when confronted by a long-distance threat that does not amount to a speck on Hitler’s jackboot.
These events seem to reveal the limits of the coalition’s avowed commitment to liberalisation. The governing parties lack both a consistent attachment to liberty and political independence, and a grasp of just how deeply the culture of precaution and the politics of fear have permeated the UK during the New Labour years. Confronted with the first sign of a full-scale security alert, they went into the familiar panic mode for fear of being accused of not doing enough to protect the nation – the worst fear for today’s busybody statesmen.
Prime Minister David Cameron even found the nerve to puff himself up into a poor man’s Tony Blair, with that high-flown rhetoric about the need for coordinated international action to cut out the ‘cancer of terrorism’ that lurks in the Arabian peninsula. Never mind that the disasters unleashed by such coordinated international action are still unfolding in Afghanistan and Iraq, or that the grim modern histories of Yemen and Somalia testify to the long-term damage caused by Western intervention in the affairs of the third world. The blinkers of national conceit that still seem to come with high British office mean that Cameron & Co can only try to imitate their imperialist predecessors – even if they know that, in an age when Britannia can only afford joint tenancy of warships with France, there is no hope of the old Empire sorting out the Middle East.
The Lib-Con coalition is apparently even wavering now over its commitment to replace New Labour’s draconian ‘control orders’ for terror suspects who have been convicted of no crime. Whatever changes they might eventually make to anti-terror laws, however, we should be clear by now that the problem highlighted by the latest terror scare goes much deeper than the precise wording of the statute book.
The elite culture of precaution and politics of fear that have often been criticised on spiked have had a serious impact across UK society. That has rarely been made more glaringly obvious than during the ongoing inquest for the victims of 7/7, when Islamist terrorists bombed three underground trains and a bus in London in July 2005, killing 52 commuters. The evidence given to the inquest by survivors and witnesses has repeatedly demonstrated how the risk-averse, precaution-obsessed authorities and emergency services were effectively paralysed by fear and box-ticking safety procedures in the moment of need. Things are likely to be worse still in the future if we carry on as we are. Fortunately, the inquest evidence has also demonstrated the hope for the future – the indefatigable human spirit of those individuals who refused to be cowed by the bombings or hamstrung by the institutionalised precautions, said sod that and went down into the underground to offer what help they could anyway. Now all we need is to combine that spirit of public resilience with some enlightened political vision that could guide us out of the tunnel.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
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