A Massive Distraction: Cynicism Rules

10 August 2006

A Massive Distraction: Cynicism Rules

By Gwynne Dyer

“I used to know when I was being deeply cynical and when I wasn’t,” said a friend who just made it into London before they closed Heathrow airport for the terrorist scare. “Now, I don’t.”

Back in February 2003, when Prime Minister Tony Blair was trying to persuade a reluctant Britain that invading Iraq alongside the United States was a really neat idea, tanks suddenly appeared on the perimeter road around Heathrow to guard against an impending terrorist attack. It wasn’t clear what they were supposed to do — crush the terrorists under their treads? — and no actual terrorists ever showed up, but it helped to shape public opinion. So how different is it this time?

Hundreds of flights delayed or cancelled. Twenty-four alleged conspirators arrested in East London, Thames Valley towns and Birmingham, many of them described by neighbours as bearded Muslims wearing traditional dress. Shocking revelations that they had a new technique for blowing up to ten aircraft on the heavily travelled London-US routes out of the sky simultaneously by smuggling explosive liquids aboard. All cabin baggage banned on flights out of Britain. And in a classic case of panic envy, the US Department of Homeland Security declares a red alert in the United States, too.

That should scare the public into supporting the “war on terror” a bit longer, even if the real wars are about something else, and are going seriously wrong: Iraq sliding into civil war, the Taliban coming back in Afghanistan, Israel flattening Lebanon without making any significant dent in Hezbollah’s capabilities. Most people will assume that with all that smoke, there must be some fire.

Of course there’s some fire. Terrorists of various sorts have been in business for about forty years, and the current crop of Islamist terrorists are especially dangerous since they are willing to kill themselves along with their victims. But in the United States more people die on the roads every single month than Islamist terrorists have killed since the year 2000, and in Britain it’s more people every week. Yet neither country has tried to restrict access to cars.

Maybe it’s cynical, but there are strong grounds for suspecting that this is all a charade. If they infiltrated these terrorist cells many months ago and have now have arrested most of the members, then why would they institute drastic new security measures on flights at this point? And did they really only realise in the last few days that explosives come in liquid form as well?

After the arrests in Britain on the night of 9-10 August, Peter Clarke, head of Scotland Yard’s anti-terrorist branch, assured the media that “during the investigation an unprecedented level of surveillance has been undertaken….We have been looking at meetings, movement, travel, spending and the aspirations of a large group of people….The investigation reached a critical point last night when the decision was made to take urgent action in order to disrupt what we believe was being planned.”

Fair enough, although this is the same organisation that took “urgent action” to kill an innocent Brazilian called Jean Charles de Menezes in July 2005 “in order to disrupt what we believe was being planned,” and earlier this year shot and wounded another innocent person in London in the course of a raid on a Muslim family in east London based on manifestly unreliable information. So maybe 24 terrorist plotters have been arrested in Britain, or maybe 24 innocent British Muslims with full beards, or more likely some combination of the two. But whatever the truth of that, why the panic?

British Home Secretary John Reid boldly asserted that the “main players” had been accounted for, and Scotland Yard Deputy Commissioner Paul Stephenson proudly announced that “we are confident that we have disrupted a plan by terrorists to cause untold death and destruction and commit mass murder.” Well done, lads — but if you have them all locked up, why are you closing the airports and bringing in all these draconian security measures now? A couple of months ago, when you first uncovered this plot but didn’t know all the “main players,” I could understand such drastic precautions, but why now?

Maybe it was those explosive “liquid chemicals” they were planning to smuggle aboard the planes. After all, it’s only 160 years since nitroglycerin was invented. It’s a mere eleven years since al-Qaeda associate Ramzi Yousef plotted to blow up 12 airliners flying across the Pacific at the same time with nitro carried aboard in contact lens solution bottles. Who could have foreseen this? Quick! Bring in new security measures!

They really aren’t that stupid. They have been checking liquids that people want to carry aboard flights at airport security checkpoints for years. There would be no need for drastic new security measures even if the alleged British terrorist ring were still on the loose. This is all hype, designed to frighten the British and American publics into supporting the wars of their deeply unpopular governments (and the war of their Israeli ally as well).

Or am I being too cynical? Maybe they’re just stupid. I really don’t know any more.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“That should…cars”)