Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Our terrorism crisis

At times last year, it began to seem as though the tide was turning against the security state, as the disproportionate and intrusive nature of measures officially designated "anti-terrorist" began to outweigh the dangers they were supposed to guard against in the minds of an increasing number of ordinary people. It didn't take much, though, to swing the pendulum back the other way: just one lone fanatic, who had already been banned from Britain and whose presence on the Detroit-bound plane was the result of administrative failings rather than any lack of technology.

That didn't matter, any more than it mattered that his bomb didn't go off. (That, incidentally, was not because of the prompt, brave action of the passengers who tackled him. It was because his bomb wasn't a very good bomb; because, thank goodness, like most of the "terrorists" who threaten our security Umar Abdulmuttalab was crap.) And it didn't matter that, in comparison with the twenty million flights there are every year in the world, even failed bombings are vanishingly rare. No, without harming a single person, even himself, Addulmuttalab has succeeded in causing chaos in international travel, making an already nightmarish situation worse for millions of travellers - with, so far at least, very little dissent.

People want to feel safe, of course. What they don't realise is that they are safe, and that they would still be safe if almost all the current apparatus of security theatre were swept away. It would, in fact, be very easy to create death and destruction at an airport: all you'd need to do would be to detonate your bomb at a check-in queue, before you reach the scanners and run the gauntlet of security checks. The bottlenecks created by such procedures provide ideal conditions for determined, reckless terrorists to kill and maim dozens of people. Yet it hasn't happened. The only explanation is that there are very few terrorists. You are more likely to be killed in a car-crash on the way to the airport than you are to be blown up by a terrorist. In fact, you are more likely to win a jackpot with the lottery ticket you bought in the airport newsagents than you are to be blown up by a terrorist. And that isn't very likely at all.

If there were less security (not none, but less obtrusive and time-consuming security) then it would be slightly easier for a would-be terrorist to get on board a plane. But given how few terrorists there are trying to board the planes in the first place, the difference would still not be significantly significant. The odds of sharing your flight with a bomb-carrying terrorist would still be much less than one in a million; and even then, as we've seen, the bomb probably wouldn't go off. As it is, new rules forbidding passengers from leaving their seats to relieve themselves during the final hour of their flight will guarantee avoidable deaths from deep vein thrombosis but save not a single person from terrorists.

If there actually were a large, well-organised, ruthlessly efficient terrorist network dedicated to bringing down Western civilisation, as we are regularly assured that Al Qaeda is, or even a large number of people willing to die in the cause of murder and destruction, then there would perhaps be a justification for the misery and indignity imposed on airline passengers in the name of security or for the police obsession with people photographing "iconic" buildings. Fortunately, there isn't. Or rather, there isn't in Europe or the United States. There is, for example, in Pakistan, where more than five hundred innocent people have been killed in bombings since September. That's what a terrorism crisis looks like.

There was a very fine article by Dominic Lawson in today's Independent looking at the effect all this terrorism-talk (not to mention all the laws) has on ordinary life. His article was prompted not by events in Detroit but by the fact that police in Norfolk had confiscated the cameras of people who had turned up outside Sandringham church on Christmas Day hoping to take a photo of the Queen. These people are likely, of course, to be die-hard royalists, as law-abiding and harmless a subsection of society as exists. For them to end up in the sights of the forces of counter-terrorism demonstrates just how far this lunacy has gone.

Lawson writes that

the most unpleasant aspect of such encounters, as most of us will intuitively realise: if the innocent citizen reacts with the outrage of the genuinely guiltless, the officers involved may well take a special pleasure in humiliating him – and it is this which makes most people meekly accept official behaviour, even if they might strongly suspect it is the police who are behaving illegally.

How true. Yet our security - of mind, as well as of body - depends on trust, above all the trust we have in the authorities to protect us. If they treat everyone like a potential terrorist, then not only does it become more difficult to believe that the police are "on our side", it also raises questions about how much of their attention they are devoting to those who genuinely are a threat. Resources aren't limitless, after all. If there's a genuine terrorist menace, shouldn't they be concentrating on that rather than harassing the law-abiding?

Lawson has an answer to that, and it certainly rings my bell:

Or is it ... that these cases are actually the result not of pressure on police officers from terrorism, but the absence of such pressure?

To put it another way, some officers are perhaps a little bored with the mundane aspect of their work, and wish to inject a bit of James Bond glamour into the daily grind of dealing with the usual drunks and layabouts. What's certain is that if such constables on the street were really overwhelmed with the burden of dealing with genuine terrorist threats, they would have neither the time nor the inclination to behave as they did.

Exactly. Like everything else, counter-terrorism obeys Parkinson's Law. There is a huge mismatch between the resources, legal powers and public discussion devoted to terrorism and the scale of the problem - at least in Western countries. There is a tremendous need to be seen to be doing something, but little that actually needs to be done. So we get security theatre; we get money spent on counter-terrorism strategies that could be used to treat cancer; we get police losing any sense of perspective. But because none of this is actually very effective, we also get occasional, high-profile (but usually incompetently-executed) acts of terrorism guaranteed to keep the show on the road.