Common sense defeated by the specter of terrorism in the air

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The “silly season” is an annual feature of British life: the period every summer when the country’s politicians depart the Westminster village for their holidays and the newspapers have to scrabble around for something else to write about in order to keep readers interested. It usually means that the salacious sex stories that are the staple diet of British tabloids begin turning up even in the supposedly “serious” broadsheets. This year, however, we have had a silly season with a difference. The papers have had more political substance than usual to report, what with the Lebanese war and the continuing political pressure on Iran, domestic political issues such as prime minister Tony Blair’s prospects and, above all, the threat of terrorism. And it has been the last that has provided much of the silliness that the papers need.

The latest spate of terrorism hysteria stems from the high-profile arrests of a group of alleged terrorists in Britain early in August; 23 people were arrested in connection with an alleged plot to smuggle explosives onto airliners bound for the US, in the form of liquids that would explode when mixed together. The country was put onto the highest level of security alert, on the grounds that a terrorist attack was imminent, and thousands of passengers were delayed or lost their baggage, including keys, laptop-computers and other valuables, as they were prevented from carrying any hand-baggage on to aircraft with them. Some of these restrictions remain in place, despite industry protests that they are unnecessary and disruptive.

Given the British government’s record of false alerts about terrorism, and of exaggerating the terrorist threat for political purposes, many people were immediately cynical about the alert. Some commentators pointed out the convenience of the timing, at a time when Israel was bombing Lebanon and Blair was being criticised for not condemning it. (It didn’t take long after the alert for US president George Bush to link the alleged terrorist plot with Hizbullah, saying they were both part of the same “Islamo-fascist” problem.) Others pointed out that the US was surprising blase about so serious a threat, suggesting that they knew it was not genuine. Questions were soon raised about why the country was declared to be under “immediate threat of imminent attack” when police said that the alleged plot had been disrupted at an early stage; the alleged attackers had reportedly not even applied for passports yet, let alone bought air tickets. Little coverage was given to experts such as Dr Jimmie Oxley, professor of chemistry at the University of Rhode Island, who pointed out that it is in fact virtually impossible to create bombs out of liquids carried on to a plane, as the ingredients are highly volatile, specialist equipment would be needed, as would carefully controlled laboratary conditions, and the process would in any case take far longer than would be practical on board a plane — at least two hours to create any explosive at all, and several more to create enough to damage an aircraft.

Nonetheless, much of the public has been panicked into a fear of terrorism in the air. The result is that in the last couple of weeks of August we have had numerous cases of Muslims (and others looking like Muslims) being persecuted by airlines, security staff and fellow passengers for the most ridiculous of reasons. In one high-profile case, two British Pakistani youths returning home from a holiday to Malaga, a Spanish resort, were forced off their plane because fellow passengers reported “suspicious behaviour”. Their crime: speaking in Urdu, which their fellow passengers assumed was Arabic. They were also reported initially to be wearing “bulky jackets” like the one which apparently led police officers to shoot the innocent Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes in London in July 2005 (shortly after the bombings of London undergrpound trains on July 7), although this was proved to be untrue when pictures of the two boys were published. In another case, a flight from the Netherlands to India turned back shortly after take-off because some passengers became suspicions of the behaviour of some Indian passengers. 12 men were arrested and questioned in Amsterdam before being released and allowed to catch a later flight to India. In the US, meanwhile, an Iraqi-American man was forced by security staff to change his tee-shirt because the one he was wearing had Arabic writing on it. Also in the US, a Pakistani woman from Dearborn was arrested for carrying liquids in her hand baggage. Another flight made an emergency landing after cabin crew found an iPod (a tiny electronic music player) that a passenger had dropped in a bathroom; they apparently suspected it might be an explosive device in disguise. In other cases, Muslims have been ejected from flights for reciting du’as under their breath as the aircraft prepared for take-off.

Twelve of those arrested have subsequently been charged with various terrorism-related offenses, although, given the experience of the so-called ricin plot, this should not be taken as evidence that there is any substance to the story. A better indicator may be the fact that Ryan Air, one of Britain’s major airlines, has sued the government for financial losses suffered as a result of the imposition of unnecessary security procedures and regulations. It’s just a pity individuals cannot sue Blair for the persecution they suffer for the the crime of “flying while Muslim”.

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