The pretentious nihilism of Plane Stupid
They pose as radicals, but actually are the worst kind of elitists.
That 13 supposed climate-change protesters from direct-action group Plane Stupid managed to breach security at London’s Heathrow Airport in the early hours of yesterday, chain themselves together and remain on the runway until 10am, over seven hours later, will, no doubt, be cause for considerable embarrassment in some circles.
True, the economic cost may not have been severe, due to there being flight restrictions in operation relating to take-offs prior to 6am. What’s more, the number of flights cancelled – 22 out of some 1,300 – would not have caused much more disruption than may be expected normally. But the implications of this protest, especially in relation to potentially more serious security breaches, seem evident to many.
What, runs this dominant commentary, if the individuals concerned had not been smiling, predominantly well-to-do types opposed to the planned expansion of Heathrow? What if they had been jihadists, affiliated to al-Qaeda or so-called Islamic State? What if they had been armed?
No doubt, such questions ought to be asked in certain circles. But, at the same time, we should not lose sight of the fact that many supposedly secure facilities have had their security compromised in one way or another since 9/11 – despite the vast sums expended to ensure this would not happen. If anything, such events suggest terrorism is not the main problem.
The Houses of Parliament in Westminster have been invaded on at least three occasions over recent years. Two members of campaign group Fathers 4 Justice threw flour bombs during Prime Minister’s Questions in 2004. Later that year, five supporters of the Countryside Alliance invaded the chamber.
In 2009, more than 30 Greenpeace activists climbed on to the roof of Westminster Hall, and many of them spent the night there, before being removed. Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle have suffered similar incursions from self-styled activists, as well as burglars and attention-seekers.
The incursion at Heathrow was clearly not an aberration.
What’s more, this particular type of incident – often perpetrated by self-absorbed types in pursuit of their usually limited political agendas – is not even the most significant in relation to airports and aviation security. In the intervening period, there have also been countless incursions worldwide into cargo areas by more organised criminals in pursuit of bullion and other goods.
If anything, Plane Stupid’s stunt seems to confirm the analysis of American political scientist John Mueller in his 2006 book Overblown: How Politicians and the Terrorism Industry Inflate National Security Threats and Why We Believe Them. As Mueller wrote, stepping up security for passengers has done little to ensure airside security. Terrorists know this, so there must be fewer of them than we imagine.
There is one aspect, though – missed by most commentators – that we ought to pay some attention to. Those middle-class types, smiling for the photographers on the tarmac, are born of the same cultural malaise as many wannabe terrorists and fantasy Islamists. They start from an unshakeable moral certitude regarding their project and require little public support or engagement.
They have also – by-and-large – been indulged by the authorities. In the past, when the authorities were more confident of what it was they wanted for society, they would not have given any of them the time of day. Today, however, these protesters are handled with kid gloves. That is because those self-same agencies are no longer even sure of what it is they believe in.
That the Plane Stupid protesters could so blithely interrupt the plans of thousands of people – whether they were attending a loved one’s funeral in a foreign land or simply having a break – and not even trouble themselves to engage those people in a debate regarding their actions is a form of pretentious nihilism.
It is born of an age in which we no longer demand that people support their actions through reason, or build community support for their opinions. Rather, we accept that if someone feels passionately about something then that alone may condone their actions. According to some, having a grievance or being offended can explain – if not justify – someone’s rage.
Most alienated white Brits cannot readily join the ranks of those throwing a tantrum and heading off to Syria. They will have to find other forms of expression for their self-distancing disconnection from society. It may well be that terrorism is simply the more violent end of a spectrum, connecting extremists to the mainstream narcissists of groups like Plane Stupid.
Bill Durodié is professor and chair of international relations at the University of Bath.
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