Monday, 22 November 2010

Of Tweets and pat-downs

In an act of remarkable generosity, Paul Chambers has decided to give the English legal system yet another opportunity to demonstrate that it can tell the difference between a joke (or an off-the-cuff expression of exasperation) and a terrorist threat. The High Court will now decide on whether the law really is the ass that Judge Jacqueline Davies interpreted it to be, or whether she was the ass. As I write, donations towards the Chambers fighting fund (around £10,000 needed for the appeal) are pouring in as Spartacus dips into his wallet. There's even talk of a benefit gig. There hasn't been anything like it since the Atheist Bus Campaign. Paul also has high-profile support from the likes of Stephen Fry, Nick Cohen and John Kampfner. The Twitter Joke Trial, in short, is now a cause celebre.

Whether the strong support Paul Chambers enjoys will have any impact on the High Court's decision is a moot point. The court won't want to be seen to be caving into public pressure. On the other hand, the disrepute into which this case has brought the law is not healthy. Public confidence in the legal process matters - as the Court recognised today by throwing out the Home Office's attempt to have evidence at the 7/7 inquiry heard in secret. In an area as politically sensitive as the terrorist threat and the official response to it, it is especially dangerous for the law to be seen as clumsily authoritarian, misdirected or a laughing stock. What happened to Paul Chambers both chills and invites ridicule.

I suspect - I certainly hope - that the police and the CPS realise that they handled the Chambers case very badly, even if they did succeed in obtaining a conviction. This was a Pyrrhic victory. In future, they may be more cautious in wasting resources on pursuing cases like this. That won't be of any help to Paul himself, though. And against the plain fact of his innocence (it cannot be repeated often enough that no-one took the "threat" seriously) must be set the strict reading of the law which convicted him, according to which a communication can be "menacing" even if no-one was in fact menaced by it. This enabled Judge Davies to invoke a fictional elderly couple who were at one and the same time technically avant-garde enough to trawl the Twitter archives for references to an airport and unworldly enough to imagine that terrorists used the service as a handy way of advertising their bomb-plots. Bizarre, but not necessarily not the law. We shall see.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic the backlash against the TSA's draconian security checks is gathering force. For days now, the newswires and the airwaves have been filling up with stories - some dating back months, or even years - of traumatised rape victims, children and a cancer patient with prosthetic breasts being subjected to degrading and intrusive "pat-downs" by airport security staff. There have been examples of individual activism, like the internet porn-star who embarrassed staff by insisting on being examined while wearing see-through underwear. Mass protests are being orchestrated later this week. In response, TSA officials have been going through all the stages of bureaucratic response - first stonewalling, then attempted explanations, then half-hearted apologies and promises to listen, and finally (though not yet) humiliating climbdown. This being America, it will no doubt end with the payment of millions of dollars in compensation to aggrieved passengers.

For the TSA, organised resistance of this type is the ultimate nightmare. Maintenance of security theatre is more about psychology than crime-prevention, and is entirely dependent on public co-operation; on the public accepting the necessity of apotropaic rituals to ward off the terrorist threat. Submitting to a pat-down or a full-body scan, however unwelcome, is for most people preferable to the alternative, which is to be unable to travel by plane. And if one or two people resist, the security industry can shrug its shoulders and carry on. But if thousands resist, then the transport system falls into chaos and the security procedures become unworkable.

It's interesting to note how Americans - subjected to even more War on Terror alarmism than the British - should finally have begun to fight back when the security measures intrude on their personal space. The language used by the TSA's opponents has been heavily, and increasingly, sexualised. Pat-downs have been described as indecent assaults, the body-scans as pornography; the touching of genital areas and women's breasts is emphasised; while particular horror is felt when children are involved. Indeed, this month's campaign was sparked by a viral campaign sparked by a recusant passenger who adopted the slogan "Don't touch my junk". All this is understandable, but also deeply revealing.

Over here there has, as yet, been no such resistance. Rather, the indignities and delays occasioned by airport security elicit a combination of grumbling, eye-rolling (as yet another granny has to take her shoes off, just in case she's walking on semtex) and Stoical acknowledgement that they wouldn't be doing it if it wasn't necessary. There have been critics - such as Michael O'Leary - but the complaints have had little public purchase. There has certainly been nothing like the heartfelt indignation at the absurd conviction of Paul Chambers.

In Britain, we don't mind being felt up by strangers. But we'll fight for our right to make jokes.