Tackling drink-driving by closing the M4

Last weekend saw political hammers and security service nails deployed once more to shoddily half-shut a stable door. Next, with best misery guts faces on, a succession of suits will assure us that adding CCTV to all stables and waving our hands in an expensive pattern are crucial to ensuring our safety, despite them all having ignored the gaping, yawning doorway since the stables were opened by the Queen Mum in 1964. Meanwhile the escaping nag – Yemeni Ink, by Timing Device out of Sniffer Range – canters leisurely to pastures new.

It must be party time in Osama’s cave/hotel room. Again we see that al Qaeda doesn’t have to kill people to win. Terrorists, some people appear to have trouble grasping, aren’t actually trying to kill people: they’re trying to spread terror. And with the eager, hysterical assistance of the media and the government they’re succeeding. The Sunday Express shrieked about “Lockerbie II” and pols everywhere are now scrambling to be seen to do Something, Anything. Paint the stable yellow! Put a low brick wall around it! Place it inside an invincible glass dome with no way in or out! Blow it up!

This is, of course, all part of Osama’s plan to put the willies sufficiently up western democracies to make them overreact to each and every perceived threat, to keep the populace in a state of constant fear and suspicion, and to tacitly incite hatred against anyone not like them. It’s Operation Chief Inspector Dreyfus: make us all twitch-eyed, trigger-happy gibbering nutjobs intent on destroying all the many Inspector Clouseaus of our respective lives.

And so far Operation Dreyfus appears to have been a wild success. It seems half the US population is spooked by the sight of a muslim. Given the reaction he seems to be producing, I’ve noted with some concern that nobody has ever seen Glenn Beck and Osama bin Laden in the same room.

Operation Dreyfus is Act II of Osama’s grand plan. Act I, of course, ended on September 11, 2001. For the last nine years we’ve had a steady stream of lower level attacks, some foiled, some not. They’ve kept governments and security services busy poking around empty stables with long sticks and declaring war on straw and other nonsense. But have they been so busy chasing their own tails that nobody has been focusing on two rather important and interesting questions: how does Act II end? And what happens in Act III?

Act II is building steadily to a population conditioned to live in fear, to expect and find normal the constant, draconian surveillance of an increasingly authoritarian police force. Last year 100,000 people in the UK were stopped under anti-terror laws, sometimes for photographing public buildings, but a grand total of zero were arrested for terrorist offences. Travellers in the US are forced to choose between inspection by all-revealing scanner and by TSA hands instructed to wander crotchwards until they ‘meet resistance‘. And meanwhile, the steady rise in paranoia: posters exhorting you to Report, to Keep Watch. Terror Threat Levels. Reassuring-but-subtext-laden statements – “No information of any imminent attack” – designed to convey the message IMMINENT ATTACK!

And anyone too Different – in skin tone, or religion, or assumed religion, or lack of religion, or extent of trouser flare, or angle of fringe, or anything else that can be imagined – lives in fear. Watching their backs. Worrying who’s round the next corner fleeing the latest Fox News falling sky alert.

That’s where I suspect Act II ends: hunter and hunted. Possibly an innocent muslim lynched by a baying, slavering mob, an ensuing riot, tension, panicky cops: and then the shooting starts. Touchpaper well and truly lit, it kicks off elsewhere too. Curfew, state of emergency, troops deployed.

Once a country is in that heightened, nervous, fidgety state, the tiniest action is incendiary, like flicking a tiddlywink down a mountain. Once the avalanche has started it’s too late for the pebbles to vote. Act III probably opens with such an event: a simple, game-changing act. My first thought was an assassination, but a kidnap would be far more powerful. For the avoidance of doubt, this is purely a thought experiment.

Implausible, perhaps. But then I never expected to see the Berlin wall fall and Germany reunited within a year; to see an attempted coup in the Soviet Union, and to see that superpower rapidly disintegrate; to see a war in Europe; to see passenger jets used as missiles; to see western democracies engage in a war under entirely false pretences; or to see Greedo shoot first, and R2D2 and C3PO advertise Currys.

It almost certainly won’t play out that way: Osama might have very different goals for his three acts. I do know that we’re reacting to these events in precisely the way he would predict, and that’s where the problem lies. We invariably respond by trying to protect against yesterday’s attack in an overbearing and cackhanded fashion: like tackling drink-driving by closing the M4.

If the state truly wants to make us safer, then it should pour money into reducing road traffic accidents, not into intercepting and analysing internet traffic. It should say Keep Calm and Carry On, not If You See Something, Say Something. We in turn should laugh and joke about it, not let a git in a cave dictate how we lead our lives: we should simply refuse to be terrorised.

Terrorism is nothing new. We had IRA attacks on the British mainland in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Some people were spooked by anyone with an Irish accent, but we didn’t declare a war on beer just because a couple of pubs were blown up. I remember turning on Breakfast Time in 1984 to see Norman Tebbit being pulled out of the wreckage of the Grand Hotel in Brighton, but receptionists didn’t suddenly start feeling people up before handing over the room key. If my grandparents, and millions of others, could remain in London and other major cities when the bombs were dropping during World War II, then we in our cosseted, cosy, ridiculously safe lives have absolutely nothing to worry about.


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