Blue Line

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Scared secure


February 3, 2014
By Dorothy Cotton

I have been on the road a lot recently, wandering through airports and train stations – and standing in endless security lines to ensure that my yogurt is not responsible for the next major international disaster.

Ah, I remember the days when you could go to the restroom without taking everything you owned into the stall with you. Try that today and the security staff might blow it up. Airports in particular seem to be places where large numbers of people are employed for the sole purpose of scaring the daylights out of travellers. I am certain there is a special Scary Voice Academy where men with booming deep voices learn how to make intimidating announcements on the public address system.

I was sitting in the waiting area of Lower Rubber Boot airport, which is slightly smaller than my living room, listening to the admonitions that if I saw any unattended belongings or suspicious looking people, I should alert the ever-ready Keepers of the Peace before something really bad happened.

“Please be aware that although that seat next to you looks empty, it is really inhabited by a very small but deadly terrorist; if you see a tissue blowing in the wind, please take immediate cover because the end is near.” (The announcements never actually say “And it will be all YOUR fault,” but we know that’s what they mean.)

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Really? The world would end because I have a cup of coffee from the machine (the only source of coffee in this airport and two meters from the security line)? Those guys in security SAW me get the coffee. I am sure they were re-playing the security announcement just for me. (Given that I was the only one there, it’s a safe bet.) Perhaps they confiscated it because they were thirsty.

There are two possible explanations for these fear-inducing rituals at airports: either we are caught up in a hopeless morass of bureaucracy – or someone, somewhere, thinks there is actually something to be gained by keeping the public in a perpetual state of fear… or perhaps both.

I was reading a recent issue of the (October 2013) as I pondered this question. Timely indeed. The first article in this particular issue was entitled “The Logic of Public Fear in Terrorism and Counter-terrorism,” and was written by a guy named Alex Braithwaite at the School of Government and Public Police at the University of Arizona.

The essential question he asked (although he phrased it in academeze) was: Does it actually serve any purpose to scare the s*** out of people by constantly reminding them that they might get blown up at any moment by terrorists?

(As an aside, I got to wondering how likely it actually is that terrorists will blow you up. I decided to look at the data for the UK because, as we well know, people there get blown up on almost a daily basis – or at least that seems to be what the press would have you believe. As it turns out, there were just under 600 people killed in terrorist attacks in the UK between 1970 and 2008 but between 1,700 and 7,500 people a YEAR are killed in automobile collisions. Huh. Time for a little perspective here.)

The experts generally define terrorism as a form of psychological warfare, with the goal of inducing change in public policy by influencing fear and changing attitudes among the general public. The reasoning goes something like this – if you convince everyone they will be blown up on their next visit to a train station, then people will pressure the government to change whatever policy seems to be pissing off the terrorists.

Successful acts of terrorism lead ‘The People’ to believe that their government is ineffective – and therefore, in a democracy, they vote for someone who might conceivably do a better job of ensuring that things don’t get blown up.

One of the side effects of this general process is that it ends up working to the advantage of the politicians who keep insisting that we are likely to be blown up any day now. Of course we really are not terribly apt to be blown up – as statistics tell us – but if the politicians say we are and then nothing happens, we think, “Gee, the government is doing a great job of making sure we don’t get blown up. I think I will vote for them again.”

If a politician says, “Really, get a grip – there is not that much danger,” and then even one incident occurs, he/she will be looking for a new job when election time rolls around. If you look at the few actual surveys which have assessed the degree of public fear about terrorism, it quickly becomes evident that the risk is grossly over-estimated.

I won’t mention the part of Braithwaite’s article where he explains how making sure people over estimate the real risk of terrorist attacks can further the agenda of people of some political orientations. Use your imagination.

Far be it for me to advise what we should or should not do in the world of counterterrorism. I am not equipped with the knowledge to come up with any viable estimate of whether my yogurt possesses a threat to life as we know it – but I am fairly sure that my fretting over whether today’s orange alert level is higher or lower than yesterday’s blue, plaid or paisley alert level does not help things any. In fact, it might be giving the terrorists what they wanted.

I am all for managing safety but I think we also need to think about how we manage fear.