Thursday, May 23, 2013

The terrorism that never was

A friend from abroad asked me about the disturbing attack in Woolwich. Disturbing indeed, for various reasons. And senseless. As if the responsibility of Britain's disturbing and equally senseless wars rested exclusively on the shoulders of somebody collecting funds for his perceived heroes. Just as disturbing, however, is the government exploitation of the event. The defence secretary is quoted as saying: "We are not going to be cowed by this kind of terrorist action", thereby completely devaluing the term terrorist as entirely meaningless. The BBC quotes the prime minister's support for a passer-by who talked about the attacker losing his "war" in London. Whilst stating that "one of the best ways to defeat terrorism is to go about our normal lives", he does the opposite and cancels a meeting in Paris to hurry back to Britain to attend a meeting of the anti-terrorism committee Cobra.
In news reports, the attacker's motives are quoted but not meaningfully discussed. His statement that innocent civilians get killed daily in Afghanistan and other theatres of wars is sadly all too true, and many suffer their fate as a result of remote controlled drones. Since those drones have now also been confirmed to have killed four US citizens, US president Obama is shortly going to make a statement justifying their continued use whilst already having pronounced that his country will "stand resolute" with Britain following the Woolwich attack. Needless to add, but for the common finger-pointing at Muslims, that justified motives do not excuse aberrant action and taking out frustrations on a misled and misguided solider will neither stop the slaughter nor aid the victims.

Once the politicians and news channels had hyped the story out of all proportion, it didn't take long for reprisal attacks on mosques and individual Muslims who were even less guilty of the knife attack than the killed soldier was of the overall conduct of the war in Afghanistan in which he had at least been previously deployed. Muslim organisations responded with messages of condemnation for the attack and the typical apologetic "it wasn't us, please don't hurt us on account of it", some even going as far as asserting their support for British soldiers serving in Afghanistan. Reading all the hype one might be forgiven for thinking that London is a quiet and peaceful little town shook to the core by this violent occurrence. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Putting things in perspective, we are dealing with a knife attack perpetrated by two individuals not acting on behalf of any group or organisation and with a single victim. There are between one and two hundred fatal gun and knife crimes in London every year. The motives differ, but the none of them is victimless. There are in excess of three thousand non-fatal knife crimes leading to injuries. Each and every one of them is brutal. For the whole of the UK there were nearly thirty thousand offences committed involving knives. If the prime minister were to return from abroad each time somebody wielded a knife in an attack in London, never mind the other major British cities, he might as well stay at home, not that this would be a bad thing. If every fatal knife attack is now upgraded to an act of terror, then embassies around the world should issue urgent advice to their citizens against visiting the UK.

Do the churches issue an apology for every violent killing in Northern Ireland? Do they distance themselves from the one of the Woolwich attackers who quoted the Bible? Do animal rights groups issue an apology for every violent animal rights campaigner targetting research labs? Should all men collectively apologise for sex crimes? All adults for pedophilia? After all, such crimes are every bit as horrific as the one David Cameron called "deeply shocking". Is he also shocked by the high level of birth defects in Iraqi babies due to the illegal use of radioactive weapons by US and UK forces? More importantly, will the security services apologise for their repetitive incompetence? It appears that both attackers were known to them as has been the case with nearly every previous "terrorist" attack perpetrated, so obviously they're are not giving us our money's worth in protection whilst spending ample time and resources spying on innocent citizens. Maybe, letting things happen serves them as a welcome argument for increased funding?

It is high time that this whole anti-terrorism business is becoming the object of a more focused discussion. How much of our fought-for freedoms do we wish to surrender to an ever-more encroaching government on the excuse that the terror threat is alive and kicking and that a potential terrorist could be lurking at every street corner? We already have more surveillance cameras in London than in any other capital on the globe? Whom do they benefit and how did they make the people of Woolwich more safe? What role do the security services play in fermenting the terror threat? How do we define terrorism, both at home and abroad? Without attempting to answer these questions and many more we will completely lose touch with reality and become open prey to those in authority who want us to live in permanent fear in order to let them exploit their positions - and us - unchecked.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Airport insecurity

Anyone who travels a lot by air will know that there's no glamour involved anymore, in fact, airports appear to be less civilised places these days than coach stations. They make the bulk of their money from charging motorists for parking and dropping off and have little regard for passengers. Amongst the least pleasant experiences before boarding a plane is the so-called security screening procedure. It has very little to do with security and a lot with harassment. It seems authorities want Joe Public to feel uneasy and on edge, for keeping the so-called terror threat alive is good for politics. So far, the only explosives ever detected by airport screening were those previously planted by security staff themselves. A couple of years ago a business man boarded a plane in Houston, Texas, with a loaded pistol in his hand luggage. He reported the security lapse on arrival. Lucky for him, they didn't spot it prior to boarding, seeing he goes by the Arabic name of Farid Seif. Had they found it, they would probably have turned him into a would-be terrorist, instead it was all embarrassment for them. He didn't intend to carry the gun, he just forgot it was there. I can sympathise. Twice I have travelled from a UK airport with a Swiss army knife in my pocket, having simply forgotten to remove it prior to setting out to the airport. On one of those occasions, they put me through a pad-down body search whilst the pocket knife happily passed through the x-ray machine unmolested with my jacket. On the other occasion, they took great care to swab my ipad for explosives. Ipads are much more interesting than Swiss army knives, I suppose. I've known other people who have travelled with box cutters left in their bag from some DIY project. Wasn't it box cutters after all which ushered in the ongoing security hype, not explosives?

The other day I boarded from a UK airport and they spent half an hour taking out everything from my hand luggage, the same bag which has travelled with me unaltered in any way for dozens of occasions before without being scrutinised, containing an assortment of electrical chargers and cables for laptops, phones etcetera. Since the electronic devices have to be removed and put through separately, they usually get all the attention, but this time it was my bag at last. The initial polite question "Is this your bag" and "Do you mind if I check it" quickly turns into "Stand back, don't touch anything", setting off alarm bells with passengers nearby that the whole thing might go up in smoke any time. Yet the procedure itself is ludicrous. An officer who wears the same gloves he has worn for hours during previous checks takes out each an every item and lays it out on a table top area in no way separated from other luggage, then swabs the items, each and everyone of them, with his explosive residue swab kit, which he puts through his mobile analysis device right at the end before giving you the "all clear" and offering to help pack so your clear out quickly, an offer best refused as you most probably end up with losing half your stuff. Officially, he would have to wear new gloves and swab and test each item separately with a new kit for the test to be in any way meaningful, but since the whole thing is just for show it doesn't really matter. It is my suspicion that security staff would rather not carry out a proper test, because substances like glycerine (nitroglycerine) used in medication for heart conditions can give false positives, and an explosive alert would cause unwelcome disruption to the whole process.
As for people losing things, besides their nerves and their heads, I have seen them forget their mobile phones, drop their identity cards, leave their boarding passes behind, and the ensuing confusion and chaos must surely add a great deal to security, apart from being a great opportunity for the occasional thief.
There is no consistency either. At some UK airports they give you tiny trays where hardly anything fits in, at others huge ones, at some airports they let you sort your stuff into trays beforehand, at others they hand you the tray last minute, so you end up like a juggler trying to balance whilst holding your jacket, belt, laptop, ipad, hand luggage ready to be submitted in a hurry. At some airports they ask you to take your shoes off randomly, at others they have a separate shoe scanning machine. If you're quick enough you could place a hidden item from your shoe into the already scanned luggage before placing your shoes on the second belt, a great way of concealing contraband and exploiting a security loophole! At European airports they take away your drinking water, but on your return flight into Europe with the same carrier you can take your water with you - naturally, North African water, for example, is known to have a much higher safety record than, let's say, British water - I kid you not!
I remember that in the days before the terrorist threat they executed similar harassment for health and hygiene reasons. If you were to fly into Heathrow or some other UK airport from Africa, they would spray the plane with insecticide before opening the doors after landing. However, if your plane made an intermediate stop in Frankfurt, where they didn't disinfect the plane, then they wouldn't do it at Heathrow either, because you came in from Europe. A simple stop-over somewhere in Europe turned those deadly African bugs into benign European creatures not worthy of further consideration - amazing!
The so-called airport security measures, including the police patrols with machine guns, serve the same purpose. They are there to intimidate and cause anxiety; they allow the US and Europe to act like the tough world policeman they made themselves out to be and keep their populations scared of those lesser human beings living outside their borders. Last not least, even bogus security is expensive, so it's definitely good for business.