“Mass Murder on an Unimaginable Scale”

It’s been interesting following the reactions to Thursday’s “foiled” “terrorist attacks”. Of course, it’s easy to be cynical about all this: this, after all is the same police force that previously foiled a plot by a Brazilian electrician to use the tube to get to work (and then lied about it afterwards), as well as a couple of chaps in Forest Gate who plotted to spend the night sleeping in their homes. This, also, is brought to us by a government that’s previously told us, on the basis of some evidence they copied off of the internets, that Saddam Hussein was 45 minutes away from launching attacks, and that’s happy to roll a couple of tanks into Heathrow if it’s politically expedient to do so. I don’t want to be sceptical, but when faced with the government that cried terrorists, it’s hard not to be, just a little.

I’m curious about the new carry on baggage restrictions. It all seems, well, rather flawed. There’s a common reaction to terrorist atrocities, or attempted ones, that says that you shouldn’t change your plans or your life, otherwise (to use a crass, overused term) the terrorists have won. Sal and I certainly have no plans to cancel our trip to the US next month, assuming that our (BA) flight actually leaves and that we can physically be on it. I wonder, though, if by implementing the new carry on restrictions, and making travel that bit more of a hassle for all involved, we are, in effect, letting the terrorists win. After all, it’s not as if it would be difficult for anyone determined enough to find ways around the new restrictions. The only real losers are ordinary travellers (and light-fingered baggage handlers, the big winners…)

For a start, the carry on restrictions only apply to flights originating from the UK. So what’s to stop a potential terrorist from simply purchasing a return ticket and exploding their fizzy drinks on the way back? Do we plan to ban hand luggage on flights everywhere in the world? I can’t see that happening, somehow, especially considering that there are already glaring inconsistencies in the existing rules: on our flight from London to Australia in February this year, for example, we ate our in-flight meals between London and Singapore with plastic cutlery; on the Singapore to Melbourne leg, you get a metal fork. Both the concept that someone might instigate an attack with cutlery, and the idea that they are only likely to do so in certain parts of the world, make no sense whatsoever.

Another gaping hole in the new rules is that, once you are through security, you can buy whatever you like from the air-side shops. Although you still can’t take toothpaste and liquids on flights to America, everything else is fair game. So what’s to stop our terrorist groups from simply planting a few staff members in key positions at the airport and getting whatever they want to get onto the plane that way. Should we attempt to eliminate risk further by stopping serving food and drinks on planes? Should we close all the airport shops at Heathrow? Somehow I can’t see BAA agreeing to that one.

Maybe you can think of some loopholes of your own; I’m sure there are many. If this incident (which was apparently an attempt to circumvent the existing security procedures simply by using materials they couldn’t detect) proves anything, it’s that for any security system one person cares to devise, there will always be another person prepared to go to whatever lengths it takes to defeat it. Perhaps rather than introducing ever more restrictive rules on what you can and cannot take on a plane, we should try to address the root cause, by looking at what drives people to want to indiscriminately murder people by blowing up a commercial airliner.

I’ll close with some figures I found on the interwebs.

– Approximate seating capacity of 10 jumbo jets: 3,000 – 4,000
– Approximate civilian deaths in Afghanistan, October – December 2001: 3,800 (source: BBC News)
– Approximate civilian casualties in the Iraq war to date: 40,000 (source: Iraq Body Count)
– Approximate civilian casualties in Lebanon – Israel conflict: 1,120 (source BBC News)