August 14, 2006
The Real Losers in Britain's Great Anti-Terror Victory
For starters, let's give them the benefit of the doubt. Let's assume that it was just a coincidence that the sensational British anti-terror operation occurred just as Israel was embarking on new ground offensives in a very unpopular war, and just a month before the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, in a mid-term election year where national security credentials count for everything.
Let's agree that what the British and American governments claim are true: that a couple dozen angry Muslims from Britain and Pakistan were planning to explode several planes in mid-flight over the Atlantic. Let's entertain the possibility that this was indeed a plot guided by Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. And let's consider seriously that, as the governments warn, all of the plotters have not yet been caught and that a grave danger still remains for the good people of America and Great Britain.
Considering the paucity of information and the inevitable secrecy of government security services, these must all remain hypothetical. And it is not likely, for the same reasons, that we will ever know the real story or, at least, the full story. So to be charitable, let's give them the benefit of the doubt.
What is known for certain, however, is that the grand police adventure that shut down Heathrow Airport and paralyzed global air traffic a few days ago produced real winners and losers. The governments tell us proudly that we won, while they – the "Islamic fascists," as President Bush so eloquently put it – lost. So let's chalk up another one in the win column for the war on terror, right?
Option A: Incompetence?
Not so fast. Even without questioning their sincerity, one has to question the behavior of the police, the secret services, and indeed the whole vast apparatus of state security. And let's assume that there was nothing fishy about the heavy-handed Heathrow operation, that it was really, as the spokesmen would have us believe, a fully justified emergency measure to prevent "mass murder on an unimaginable scale."
Yet taking them at their word, at very best this shows us that far from being invincible, the security services were unable to stop a plot involving a few dozen people (and of these, not all actually being in the country to boot) without at the same time paralyzing essential day-to-day business and travel, affecting millions of people and wiping out untold millions in cumulative individual and business profits.
There are several reasons for such an unflattering judgment. First, the best police operations are supposed to be done quietly and carefully – to avoid just the kind of chaos that was in fact caused. And second, since the British government announced some of the suspects still roamed free, why would they risk tipping off these others by making such a spectacle? And, if the American, British and other governments had really been working painstakingly for many months to thwart the alleged terrorist cell, couldn't they have put a stop to it long before the "operational stage" and any airport intervention was needed?
Finally, if they were intimately aware of the specific identities of the plotters, was it really necessary to remove the carryon goods of millions of other, presumably innocent travelers? The fact that it apparently was necessary indicates that, at best, the security services who expect our undying gratitude are really incompetent, lumbering oafs. And that is if they really did in fact mean well.
Option B: Deceit?
Yet that hypothesis is the charitable one. But if we are to imagine that the all-powerful, well-funded, and far-flung security services are really in fact quite competent, which I believe to be the case, the implications of the War on Carryon Items become much more sinister.
For if the governments were really on top of things, and were capable of stopping the plotters in advance, it can only be concluded that this was pure theater, a spectacle of British state power designed to terrify ordinary people and force upon them the most restrictive conditions ever witnessed in global travel – the coup de grace being that they were then allowed to thank the state, the more profusely the better, for going to such lengths to save them.
And so the British government would, according to this hypothesis, have performed a publicity stunt of breathtaking proportions. Shutting down the world's busiest airport, and in so doing knowingly incurring huge global economic losses and stranding thousands, would have been calculated not only to terrify the public with dire images of al-Qaeda attacks, but even more so, to demonstrate the awesome power of the state to control its subjects at will. And not only its own subjects – since the temporary residents of the airports came from myriad nations, the lots of foreigners and locals alike were all thrown in together, all subjected to the same arbitrary and panicked decrees.
Indeed, the sobering images of "organized chaos," as the networks dubbed it, were played over and over on television screens around the world. The main backdrop being the airports – those postmodern refugee camps, their inhabitants subdued and lined up by armed guards, all receiving identical plastic bags in which to place the barest of personal necessities (of course, not even those necessities of human life, water or food, but necessities for the life of the state, documents and passports).
Going to Extremes?
Unfortunately, the British government's security zeal proved infectious, and the same ridiculous restrictions were soon enforced in American airports – though government officials there admitted that there was not and had never been any internal threat. Amazingly, there was little sign of resistance from the American people. After all, since 9/11, hasn't ensuring safety, above and beyond anything, been the single greatest goal of every committed citizen in the Free World? We should all be grateful!
This sudden new wave of state-sponsored terror hysteria will quite possibly have an eviscerating effect on what was left of civil liberties following 9/11 and the PATRIOT Act. After all, can anyone name a government that has voluntarily relinquished "temporary" powers it assumed in order to ensure the "well-being" of its citizens? The sad thing is that the government doesn't even have to try: with a wildfire of hysteria spread by the media, the masses are ready to sacrifice their freedom for the common good, and all the politicians are out thumping their chests just to prove, in this election year, that they are not "soft" on national security.
One would be considered crazy if they said that air travelers might someday be packed into planes naked and tagged for their own security. But then again, would not someone who predicted passengers meekly boarding with just a plastic page of papers have been laughed out of town just a few years ago? After all, who knows what ingenious weapons the terr'rists could conceal inside shirt buttons or shoelaces!
The New Rules
According to the post-9/11, "with us or against us" logic, every person in the world is a potential suspect, every basic human action subject to scrutiny. Above and beyond the automated wiretaps and bank surveillance and omnipresent security cameras, this boils down to the specific personal interactions of the security saviors – from simple airport screeners to the CIA – with average people. With the passage of ever more restrictive and irrational laws, individual incompetence can be protected behind a sinister, legalistic shield and bureaucratic whims. And, when critics sometimes ask why the authorities are out frisking grannies and staring down children and seizing library records, it's always with that inevitable preliminary apology of, Oh, we know a war's on and they generally mean well.
Now, actions such as banning millions of people from bringing water on planes, just because a couple dozen known individuals may have been plotting to use liquid explosives, continue to show that the government does not mean well at all. The lack of reason, of common sense, of basic skills of judgment and discernment – these are the hallmarks of a state (actually, states) grown complacent in their exercise of absolute power. There is no longer any accountability, and we can expect none to come in an election year when few politicians are willing to risk looking weak on national security by standing up for civil liberties.
The new laws of travel in the land of the free and the home of the brave are clear. In the Transport Security Administration's FAQ, the question "What should the American people know?" has the following answer: "We ask every passenger to be alert and report suspicious activity to authorities." Apparently, "when will this onerous program of restrictions be stopped?" is not a question that needs to be answered.
Reading between the lines in recent articles extolling the virtues of granting ever greater powers to law enforcement officers, one gets the gist of where the unpleasant new reality for travelers is heading. When at the airport, don't look at the authorities in any way that could possibly be considered the wrong way (better yet to keep your head down and not speak unless spoken to). Don't move around too much. Don't ask questions. Don't raise your voice, except in order to "report suspicious activity." Don't protest or disagree with those entrusted with preserving your safety. And never forget to thank your government for all the freedom it allows you to have.