Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Age of paranoia

Be afraid, be very afraid! There may be a terrorist living in your neighbourhood. Don't take any chances. If you know of Muslim student looking up information on the location of airports around the world, don't hesitate to report him, so he can be duly arrested for possessing material likely to be of use to potential terrorists. If a non-Muslim student posing as pacifist protests by holding up a placard outside an army training base, don't leave things to chance, get police dogs and helicopter back-up. We can't have army cadets put in harms way before they even go to Afghanistan. If you're an airline pilot and one of your passengers is an orthodox Jew wanting to say his morning prayers, you better head for the nearest airport. If your passenger is a Muslim about to pray, you should try an immediate crash landing, maybe the Hudson River. We need better security. Ban the Burkha. Don't let those Muslim women get away with hiding their faces. God only knows what else they may be hiding. We live in very dangerous times.

Troubles is, where do you start and where do you stop. Why should there be naked body scanners only at airports? Did not the 7/7 terrorists try and blow up trains and buses? So did the Madrid train bombers. Why are we not strip-searched when entering a train station. Why can I board a coach or bus with as many bottles of water (or peroxide) as I like? Those terrorists sure are clever people. They've understood that it is getting harder to board a plane with explosives. Knowing that you can cause just as much carnage outside of airports, they're sure to diversify, so where are the risk assessments for public spaces unrelated to aviation? In Iraq scores of people get killed daily in bomb attacks since that glorious "liberation", and none of them at an airport.

Whenever a past attempted terrorist attack gets widely reported, the US government raises the security threat level from elevated to high or from yellow to orange, and the UK government follows suit by raising its threat level from substantial to severe. But if it's severe in the USA, then it's critical in the UK. So much for cooperation in fighting terror - they can't even agree on the terminology. What's severe on the European side of the Atlantic, isn't quite severe yet on American soil. But leaving this aside, why does the threat level never go up before an attack? Don't we all spend enough money on so-called intelligence? What is the basis of those classifications? Since they are for our own protection, shouldn't we be getting some transparency at least?

Unfortunately, there's nothing intelligent at all about the whole hocuspocus. In fact, whenever the threat level indicates that an attack is highly likely, we usually get a period of calm, whereas the attacks that lead to the subsequent raising of the threat level usually take place after the threat level has been indicating a lower risk. Of course, it is not for us lesser mortals to probe into the wisdom of such things. This is the job of security experts who sadly would be out of a job if things made sense or added up.

If an alien came to earth and read the papers or listened to the radio or watched television, he would immediately be on guard against those nasty terrorists. He'd be watching his back. He'd stop drinking water in case it exploded inside him. He'd wonder why people are allowed to wear clothes at all since they could be hiding explosives. He wouldn't ever risk using public transport. Chances are, he'd die in a car accident.

About 115 people die daily in car accidents across the United States. In the UK, a much smaller place, it is 8 people a day. Three times as many die in other accidents, for example at work or at home. In fact, people's homes are the most dangerous places of all. And as far as violent killings go, most people are murdered by somebody who knew them. Thus whilst going out is dangerous, staying home might not be an option either to prevent harm. Besides, your own children might have been radicalised by terrorist recruiters and start experimenting with explosives in the bathroom. Did I mention swine flu?

Anxiety disorder, characterised by irrational fear, used to be a psychiatric condition. Now it's become the social norm. If our governments really want to protect us and have our best interest at heart, they should invest in something rather cheap: a sense of proportion.

There, I said it. Now I'm waiting for that knock on the door.

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