Yemen bombs: Fear will not make us safe

Posted by Alexander Hay

From the Archives: Far from giving us a sense of security, our approach to post-9/11 terrorism has made us both irrational and still all too vulnerable it's good news that last week's* Al Qaeda attempt to blow up planes has failed, it's time for the usual sense of deja vu.

Yes, get ready for more of the same old knee-jerking. Martin Broughton's call that some of the sillier airport security measures be scrapped will be soon forgotten. Remember - 100 ml bottles of liquid and shoes are some of the greatest threats to our nation since Hitler. So expect yet more searches, more intrusion and more stable doors bolting. No printer will be above suspicion, but of course we will all feel much safer.

This madness has reached its high apogee with the X-ray scanner, or the 'Perv Scanner' as it ought to be known. It says a lot about how rotten our values now are that we don't mind being publicly strip-searched by what is a very weird device. In fact, it's reminiscent of a Benny Hill sketch where a mad professor creates a machine that lets him see buxom beauties in their underwear and then chases them as the film speeds up and the saxophone kicks in. This rarely happens at Heathrow, mind you.

Yet the fact that we don't seem to care that the Perv Scanner is a. weird and b. profoundly dodgy says more about us than a terrorist attack ever could. In America, these can be refused, but only if you undergo a humiliating 'intensive' pat down that verges on indecent assault instead. Us plebs in the UK don't even get that option - it's either get in the Perv Scanner or you don't fly.

Make no mistake, the terrorists are winning, and are no doubt sending each other 'Jolly Well Done!' messages in the post even as we speak. They may as well have the victory parade now, if they can find some way around the fact that they think smiling, bright colours and not hiding in caves is evil. We are getting beaten by killjoys and tyrants precisely because our response to them is, well, being killjoys and tyrants.

But the real problem is, as last week has shown, that all the safety measures in the world won't work if you can find a way around them. All the scanners, thuggish airport security, intrusion and paranoia will mean nothing if the terrorists think of the one thing you haven't thought of yet.

More to the point, if a system can be created, then by definition, it can be circumvented or undermined too. It might sound shrill to compare terrorism to a virus, but in a way it is. It constantly evolves and learns new ways to attack the body politic. It's an intellectual arms race we're always destined to lose because they're always one step ahead of us.

In a sense, though, stopping terrorism is not the main goal of all these security measures. It's really about control, or a sense of control. Sufferers of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder may notice the symptoms straight away. There are all the time-consuming, repetitive, bizarre rituals; the desperate attempt to stay in control; the worst case scenario mentality; the hysterical over-reaction when challenged about this, and, lest we forget, the unyielding, never-ending sense of raw terror that dogs the sufferer in his or her every waking hour.

Like an OCD sufferer, the War on Terror must stay on its path whether it is helpful or not (usually not). To do otherwise would be to lose what sense of security one has left. This is an awful, tragic condition when it afflicts a single person. But it becomes farcical and grotesque when applied to an entire society. We've gone mad.

Nevertheless, what last week's case showed was revealing. Firstly, since those bombs made it from Yemen to Britain, often via several passenger jets and supposedly thorough searches by police and security, our rituals have been proven to be flawed. Rather than accept that what we're doing is not working (and that it makes life harsh for those who depend on air travel), the same pathology will carry on and on, and yet more rituals will be added to the list we've already got to live with. We can't admit this though. To do so would also mean having to own up to being scared and vulnerable, which we are. Yet this is the kiss-of-death in a culture where looking like you're in control is all-important.

Secondly, it wasn't the fear and gadgets that won the day. Rather, it was shared intelligence. In fact, if you look at what has foiled most terrorist attacks (other than their own ineptitude) it has been either intelligence or people who took prompt action when they saw something was wrong, like the t-shirt seller in Times Square, New York, or the luggage worker at Glasgow Airport. When terrorists do succeed, it's often down to intelligence failures - someone not joining the dots or spotting the plain and obvious. Think of the Detroit bomber who could have been intercepted before he even got on the plane, or 9/11 itself.

So rather than bog us down with more 'hand-washing' rituals, perhaps governments need to focus on getting that intelligence. They might also stop treating the public like would-be criminals and more like its eyes, ears and first line of defence. Just perhaps.

In the meantime, we should follow the example of that airline pilot from Tennessee who refused to be put through a Perv Scanner or be treated like a suspect. He did this because, after almost 5 years of no doubt reliable service on his part, the whole process was plainly nonsensical. The brazen cheek of the man!

Given that the pilot could simply crash his plane at any time rather than go through the effort to smuggle anything in to blow it up, he had a point though. And so does everyone else who refuses to be treated like this. We must stop indulging the state's ever more unhinged and creepy habits, not least because they do not make us any safer.

What's the alternative? While it may not be popular to say this, the Israeli approach to airport security seems to be the best way to go. It works and it is convenient. And, needless to say, it's not scanners or rubrics that are at the centre of this system. Instead, it's intelligence, horse sense, a good grasp of human psychology and, most of all, a willingness to use one's brain rather than fall back on gadgets and mindless rules. While some have rightly criticised its reliance on racial profiling, there is no denying the fact that it works, nor the fact that it treats air passengers not as cattle or but with some degree of civility.

Perhaps fittingly, it was the former head of Israeli Airport Security, Rafi Sela, who claimed he could easily smuggle explosive past an X-ray scanner. That's the point - with the right approach, such a thing can be done with ease. This is, however, a hard pill for our rulers to swallow, because that means accepting that they are not in total control, and so admitting their weakness.

But in any case, extra vigilance is always much more effective than the latest technological catch-all. It would do us all well to finally accept this.

*: As in, the October 2010 Yemen cargo plane bomb plot.

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Alexander Hay

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