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false reassurance

bergens tidende, 8 january 2010

If you are planning to fly to America any time soon be prepared to be strapped into your seat for the last hour of your journey. If you’re feeling cold, too bad: you won’t be able to put a blanket over your lap. You will be forbidden from taking anything out of your hand luggage. You won’t be able to distract yourself by making a phone call, accessing the internet or watching live TV. And you will be kept in the dark as to exactly where you are on the flight plan.

Why? Because on Christmas Day Nigerian Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a plane between Amsterdam and Detroit with explosives stitched into his underpants. Apparently he spent 20 minutes in the toilets, placed a blanket on his lap and attempted his outrage as the plane was descending into Detroit. Hence the new rules from America’s Transportation Security Administration.

According to the US Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano the new measures ‘are designed to be unpredictable’. In fact they are entirely predictable. Every since 9/11, airport security has pursued one strategy: to stop passengers from doing what the last terrorist did.

On 9/11, the hijackers used small box-cutting knives to seize the planes. The authorities banned all sharp objects on board. That same year Richard Reid, an English convert to Islam, tried to sabotage a flight from Paris to Miami by detonating explosives hidden in his shoe. Passengers had to take off their shoes before passing through security. In 2006, terrorists planned to blow up some ten transatlantic airliners using liquid explosives. You could no longer carry liquids and gels on to aircraft. Perhaps we should just be thankful that the American authorities have not banned people from wearing underpants on transatlantic flights.

The security strategy has not just been predictable. It has also been ineffective. ‘Our current response to terrorism’, as author and security expert Bruce Schneier has put it, ‘is a form of “magical thinking”. It relies on the idea that we can somehow make ourselves safer by protecting against what terrorists happened to do last time’. The impact of such measure has been to create huge disruption for genuine passengers without particularly discomfiting potential terrorists. Can’t cover your lap an hour before landing? The next Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab will do it an hour and half before. Can’t get information about how far the plane is from its destination? A glance at his watch will give him a good idea.

Terrorism is real and can be devastating. But it is far rarer than people think. We imagine that we live in an ‘age of terror’, beset on all sides by an enemy that poses mortal threat to Western civilization. In truth, and despite the post 9/11 sense of millenarian doom, the world is safer today than it has been for the past half-century. According to Ted Robert Gurr and his colleagues at the University of Maryland’s Centre for International Development and Conflict Management, worldwide violence increased sixfold during the course of the Cold War, peaking just before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since then it has lessened by nearly a half.

It is true that the nature of violence has changed, becoming less organized and predictable. Standing armies fighting under formal orders have given way to loose networks of fanatical jihadis striking seemingly at random. Yet even here, fears are exaggerated. High profile attacks such as 9/11 and the London tube bombings, Madrid and Mumbai stick in our minds. But in reality these are exceptional events. ‘Very few people want to commit acts of terrorism’, Bruce Schneier points out, ‘and executing a terrorist plot is much harder than television makes it appear.’ Over the past decade, Americans were more likely to have been struck by lightning than hijacked by terrorists.

The real threat of terrorism comes not from what terrorists do but from what we imagine terrorists do. On 9/11 the hijacked planes tore into the fabric, not simply of the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, but also of the self-assurance of Western societies. Into that gaping hole have flown a whole bestiary of demons. ‘If a flight full of commuters can be turned into a missile of war’, observed the New York Times the following day, ‘then everything is dangerous.’

It is a sentiment that has shaped much of the ‘war on terror’. Over the past decade the response to terrorism has been driven less by the threat than by the fear. The authorities want to be seen to be doing something. That is why many, perhaps most, of the measures taken to combat terrorism have largely been for show, to create a kind of theatre of response that can assuage fears and anxieties.

In the aftermath of the failed Christmas Day bombing, British prime minister Gordon Brown announced that all British airports would be equipped with ‘full body scanners’, machines that reveal the naked body of the passenger as they walk through. It is a highly intrusive form of technology but has been touted as the solution to the problem of explosive devices that traditional metal detectors cannot detect. According to Ben Wallace, however, a British Conservative MP who had previously worked on the project that developed the scanners for airport use, trials had shown that the machines picked up shrapnel and metal, but, just like current scanners, missed liquid, chemical, plastic explosives. In other words, Britain will be spending millions on a highly intrusive piece of technology that won’t make passengers any safer, but will make politicians seem pro-active.

The desire to be seen to do something about terrorism has led not just to invasive surveillance at the airports but to invidious laws that undermine civil liberties without deterring fanatics and thoughtless wars that feed terror and insurgency. And this is exactly what terrorists want: policies that create not more reassurance but greater insecurity, make fanatics appear more significant than they are, and play to the terrorist desire to turn their activities into a public spectacle.

The best way to deal with the likes of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is not to impose more intrusive surveillance, turn buildings into fortresses and reduce freedoms and liberties. It is to do the opposite: to peel away the layers of useless security that constrain our lives, roll back the attacks on civil liberties and accept that one can never rid ourselves entirely of the threat of terrorism. I’m not suggesting that terrorism should not be taken seriously. It should. But we should treat terrorists for they are – a fractured band of criminals, not a transcendent threat to Western societies.

A terrorist attack cannot destroy a liberal society. But the response of such a society to terrorism can.