A pile-up of panic and fear on the M6
Last week, a bizarre collision of two of British officialdom’s biggest anxieties, smoking and terrorism, caused chaos.
The evils of smoking and terrorists. Two things that obsessively play on the minds of the authorities in twenty-first-century Britain. Last week these two anxieties came crashing together in a bizarre pile-up of fear on the M6 motorway.
While smoking tobacco is banned in enclosed public spaces and workplaces in Britain, there is no such ban on smoking e-cigarettes (electronic cigarettes). However, such is the anti-smoking hysteria today that many people still smoke e-cigarettes discreetly, and slightly awkwardly. Such was the case on a Megabus coach travelling on the M6 toll road last Thursday. In fact, the e-smoker on that bus became so awkward that he ended up channelling the water vapour from his cigarette device into a plastic bag, so keen was he not to draw attention to what he was doing. His discretion – probably coupled with the fact that he was Asian-looking – backfired. A fellow passenger became so panicked that he called the cops.
That act in itself speaks volumes about the estranged nature of relationships between members of the public today. The informant didn’t think to ask the e-smoker what he was up to, or simply talk to the driver or his fellow passengers about what was going on. Instead, he seems simply to have assumed that the smoking man was doing something terrible, possibly preparing a bomb in plain sight on a bus on a motorway (something that terrorists often do, of course…); and so he obeyed ubiquitous police warnings to be ‘vigilant’ and phoned them from his mobile.
Despite, or maybe because of, the vagueness of the passenger’s report, paranoid Staffordshire police decided to take no chances. They reacted in what a police spokesperson has since described as a ‘swift and proportionate’ manner. This ‘proportionate’ response included sending 25 police cars and vans, 13 fire engines, four ambulances, bomb-disposal units, and actual members of the military. Even a decontamination unit was dispatched, in case a dirty nuke attack was unfolding on the M6.
The M6 toll road was closed for six hours while the Megabus’s 48 passengers were removed at gunpoint and searched. While some passengers have been sympathetic towards the police, others have said they feared that ‘if I made a wrong move, I could have been shot’.
Given the febrile climate that is often produced by officialdom’s overreaction to terror threats (consider the police shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell tube station in London, post-7/7), such concerns seem justified. However, others have defended the police’s actions on the M6. They point out that we need to tighten up national security in the run-up to the Olympics and that it is better to be safe than sorry.
But should we really have such blind faith in the authorities? To the extent that we are unwilling even to criticise their shutting-down of a major artery in the English Midlands for six hours, which caused massive inconvenience to tens of thousands of people, all over an e-cigarette? What next – will entire Olympics events be stopped because someone in the audience has a sneaky e-cigarette, producing a bit of vapour?
Apparently, hidden e-cigarettes are only one of a vast number of potential threats to the safety of Britain and the London 2012 Games. Risk-averse authorities have been busily working on ‘worst-case scenario’ planning exercises in preparation for the Games. These range from concerns about a ‘Mumbai-style’ gun attack at sailing events in Dorset to a ‘possible air attack by fanatics who support al-Qaeda’. Members of the public will, of course, be encouraged to be vigilant for anything that looks or sounds like terrorism. Considering that the authorities are placing surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) in parts of London to tackle terror threats during the Games, it is frightening to think what might unfold in a future false-alarm scenario. Officialdom’s jittery finger, hovering over the trigger for SAMs and with the power to dispatch armed military units on a whim, would seem to be a bigger threat to the safety and atmosphere of the Olympics than any gang of fanatics.
The M6 incident confirms that the politics of fear is a larger threat to the social fabric today than tiny groups of violent-minded individuals ever could be. It is the fact that officialdom is frightened of its own shadow that life in part of Britain was thrown into disarray last Thursday, and it is the fact that our rulers are so consumed by a culture of panic that the Olympics are being bogged down by a welter of irrational fears. The worst-case scenario is that this debilitating culture of fear goes unchallenged in the coming weeks.