The “tourists” (as South Africans used to call them in deliberate mockery of their attempts to terrorise everybody, and as George W. Bush also called them because he didn’t speak English very well) are always seeking to blow up our airplanes. Why else would we employ hundreds of thousands of people to stand around in airports and go through our baggage?
True, they haven’t actually caught anybody trying to board a plane with a bomb in the nine years since 9/11. Many terrorist plots were nipped in the bud by good intelligence work on the ground, but the few who did try to carry bombs onto aircraft (the shoe bomber, the underpants bomber, etc) got through “airport security” and were only defeated by their own incompetence.
Despite all this, the airport security industry continues to flourish. Indeed, it serves a useful social function, providing employment to many people who would otherwise be roaming the streets looking for something to do, and perhaps falling in with bad companions.
However, common sense and a grasp of irony do not figure prominently in the job description for airport security personnel. That’s why we are all conditioned, while going through airport security, to avoid making remarks that even refer to the reason for all these searches.
Should you politely inquire, as they ferret through an old lady’s handbag, whether they really think there’s a bomb in there, you will spend the next twelve hours in a side-room being interrogated. Indeed, you don’t even have to get aboard an aircraft to fall afoul of the vast security establishment that has sprung up since 9/11. Just send an e-mail containing key-words like “blowing up an aircraft,” and they may visit you in the comfort of your own home.
That’s what happened to Paul Chambers, a 27-year-old British accountant. His flight to Northern Ireland to visit his girlfriend was cancelled when snow closed Nottingham’s Robin Hood airport last January, and he vented his anger to his girlfriend on Twitter.“Crap,” he wrote. “Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!!”
Those who have lived among human beings for any length of time will recognise that as a lame attempt at humour, but if you spend your time in darkened rooms reading intercepted electronic messages you tend to lose contact with the human race. So Paul Chambers was arrested, charged, tried and convicted. He was fined $1500 plus legal costs. And as soon as he was arrested, he lost his job.
He appealed his conviction, naturally, and in mid-November judge Jacqueline Davies rejected his appeal. She emerged from her cave to rule that Chambers’s tweet has been “menacing in its content and obviously so. It could not be more clear. Any ordinary person reading this would see it in that way and be alarmed.”
So far, it’s just another dreary tale of overweening securocrats and out-of-touch judges, but what happened next was more heartening. Thousands of people who were outraged by sheer stupidity of it all began to re-tweet Chambers’s original message in a show of solidarity.
So far, none of the people who did this have been arrested, because some senior person in the British security establishment finally realised that the whole sorry story makes them and the judges look like fools. Or, to be more precise, reveals them for the fools they are. But it would not be a good idea to re-tweet Chambers’s message anywhere outside Britain, for the equally foolish authorities elsewhere don’t know the background story.
What you could do, if you are minded to make some small gesture of resistance to this ignorant and oppressive system, is to include some reference to bombs and aircraft in your e-mails and tweets from time to time. Be careful how you phrase it – “I heartily disapprove of people who try to smuggle bombs onto aircraft” would be a safe comment – but as long as you use the key words, it will come to the attention of the system.
The computer will flag the message, and some analyst will actually have to read it. They won’t arrest you for it, although your name will probably go onto one of their data-bases. Don’t worry about that: if you have ever done anything remotely interesting in the world, your name is almost certainly on several of their data-bases already. And if enough people sent messages like that, it might even clog up the system.
Well, no, not really. Whenever they want more computing capacity, they get it, because no politician will risk being accused of stinting on “security matters.” In reality, your small act of resistance will simply trigger the waste of more of the money you pay in taxes: no matter what you do, the house wins. But it might make you feel better for a little while.