Friday, October 03, 2014

Do I look like a terrorist?

Confirmed bellend Richard Littlejohn writes things on the Daily Mail, for some reason. That’s already a bad beginning but needless to say it gets worse.

It begins charmingly:

As the old whore complained: ‘It’s not the sex, it’s the stairs.’ Same goes for air travel. It’s not the flight, it’s all the aggravation that goes with it.

I’m not sure he thought this analogy through. Aggravation as stairs, I get. But he seems to cast air travel as (presumably unwanted and laborious) sex and himself as the aging prostitute.  I doubt this is what he was trying to say.

He’s complaining about his bag being searched when he flew to Glasgow last weekend.

I’ve written before about middle-aged Howards and Hildas being given the third degree at airports while women in burkas and young men of Asian descent are waved through security — so terrified are the authorities of being accused of ‘profiling’.

What else could Littlejohn be saying other than he’s white, middle-aged and middle-class so couldn’t possibly be a threat, unlike those shifty-looking brown people in funny clothes?  He claims he was stopped because the plastic bag containing his fluids (I mean his shaving cream and so on, not his bodily fluids, presumably) was slightly too big.  I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt about that*, although I don’t really buy it.

Much of Littlejohn’s article is about the security theatre in airports, and I’ll get back to that. But the rest is high-grade, refined, starship-fuel grade racism. First, he establishes why he can’t possibly pose a threat to aircraft:

We were forced to wait while my miniature can of shaving gel was whisked away for an anti-explosives swab and the assistant filled in a special form, noting time and action taken.

While all this was going on, I was chatting away merrily to a supervisor who’d recognised me and wanted a natter about something he’d read in my column.

Clearly he knew perfectly well that neither my wife nor I were terrorists or had any intention of blowing up the Glasgow shuttle. So what was the point of holding us up?

I think the answer to that question is pretty clear. The security staff recognised him and wanted to give him – him personally – the hardest time they possibly could. I certainly would. Who wouldn’t? But he slaps his prejudices on the slab for all to see, so let’s poke at it gingerly with a stick and a horrified expression. It’s clear that he thinks he’s above suspicion. He’s not brown and his clothes are normal instead of funny so how could he possibly be a threat to a plane? I’ll come back to this, too.

Hundreds of wannabe jihadists seem to have had no difficulty passing through British airports en route to joining IS in Syria.

Even if there were hundreds of emigrating jihadists, what does Littlejohn propose? They’d be unlikely to carry explosives or to have any intention of blowing up a plane, so what would be the point of searching them? If they were going to blow up a plane, they’d need to have explosives. Where did they get them?  And why would they target flights to Syria? Surely that would be counter-productive if the supposed mass exodus of jihadists to Syria is to be facilitated. Littlejohn is proposing either searching of muslim-looking people for no reason or their prior surveillance, also for no reason.  Apparently just so he – who is clearly above suspicion – doesn’t have to go through the mild inconvenience of having his bag searched.  No matter that the ‘shoe bomber’ was white. And the ‘white widow’. And the ‘unabomber’. There are many threats to air travel. Excluding brown people from travel will not eliminate those threats.

The most recent [‘wannabe jihadist’] was a 15-year-old Somalian girl from Bristol, travelling via Turkey unaccompanied by an adult. Didn’t that ring any alarm bells?

I don’t know why it should. There are reasons to go to Syria other than jihad. Littlejohn doesn’t know whether or not she was treated with suspicion and her luggage searched, just like his was. If it was – as in his case – they didn’t find anything. So what reason would anyone have to stop her travelling? Littlejohn doesn’t seem to mind non-Somalians with the same travel plans. Not that Yusra Hussien is from Somalia, of course, she’s from Bristol. And nobody knows whether she travelled for the purposes of jihad. Perhaps she did, but preventing brown people from travelling is hardly going to help.

Wouldn’t all this money be better spent targeting them, instead of wasting time and effort treating respectable, middle-class Middle Englanders as potential shoe bombers?

By “them”, Littlejohn is referring to people who have travelled with false passports. Of course, no respectable, middle-class Middle Englander could be worthy of suspicion. I’m an entirely disrespectful lower-class northerner. Is there a Littlejohn Scale of Trustworthiness? I’d be interested to know how I scored.

And at this rate it can only be a matter of time before the aviation security ‘experts’ work out that the only way to guarantee our ‘safety’ is simply to abolish air travel altogether?

Well yes. That’s exactly what a security expert would say. Bruce Schneier has said exactly that and if he’s not a security expert I don’t know who is.  Security is always about trade-off. It’s easy and convenient to use the same password for everything but it’s roaringly insecure.  It’s easy and convenient to allow the public to visit public spaces, but one of them might have a gun or a bomb. The Internet and other telecommunications set us free, but they also chain us.

The only way to secure air travel entirely is to prevent it altogether. We’re not going to do that. But Littlejohn’s assertion is that there’s nothing to be gained from airport security theatre.  I agree to some extent.

There’s no denying that the security theatre at airports is mostly that. The vast majority of fluids on planes will not explode them. Most people just want to get to wherever they wish to be. Hardly anyone has exploding shoes. But that doesn’t mean there are no threats, risks or attacks. A threat is a potential vulnerability. A risk is a judgement about how seriously to regard a threat and how much – money, effort, fear, whatever – to spend on it. Attacks are attempts to exploit threats in order to make assets vulnerable. Assets are things that can be hurt. They might be data, objects, people or systems.

There’s also no denying that there are threats relating to air travel. There are assets with vulnerabilities which might be attacked. So our job is to understand the risks and to deploy countermeasures that result in some sort of security of those assets.

It would be nice to think that actual real-world countermeasures make threats benign and thereby protect our assets, but it doesn’t work that way for about a thousand reasons.  For example: if a neighbour’s burglar alarm goes off once, you’ll probably look out the window to see what’s up. If it goes off all day every day for a month, you’re likely to crash through the the neighbour’s house and rip the fucking thing off their wall with your teeth. Does any of this have any bearing on the risk of burglary?

A big part of security is about finding out what it is you want to protect and what you want to do with those things. Part of that involves recognising who is  the attacker and how they mean to attack. Sometimes the attackers we consider aren’t real, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth considering the attack. But sometimes attacks aren’t real and we have to wonder whether preventing them is worth the cost. The 9/11 attacks were certainly real and committed by people who want to hurt us. Littlejohn is right to suppose that confiscating our liquids and our tweezers will do nothing for plane security. But theatre has it’s place. It makes people feel safer even if they’re not.  It’s vital that people keep using air travel services even if the security surrounding them doesn’t make us safer. Placebos work even though they’re not medicine, even for people who know placebos are placebos. Security theatre might be worthwhile in some ways even though it’s bullshit; even though it doesn’t increase security.

In the case of security theatre at airports, I think it does have a place ,more good for airports and the air travel industry than it does for passengers. I think the bodies who need to do or be seen to do something are not always those in a position to do it. I think that many, many players are involved in airline security have conflicting agenda and that if they sat down at a table to decide how to secure airlines, they’d only be able to agree on stupid, trivial measures like taking away your tweesers and complaining that you have too much shaving cream.

Littlejohn’s complaint isn’t valid on any level. The security trade-off isn’t about the people he fears because they look and dress different to he. It’s about corporations and government together making travel difficult for various reasons. Or internet access. Or freedom of speech. Or access to information. Depending on where you are. The proper response to authoritarian bullshit isn’t to demand that minorities are prevented from travel or other freedoms and majorities are not. The correct response is to disobey. To protest. To disobey and protest even if – and especially because – you are not a minority,

Littlejohn is an idiot and he writes stupid shit. But his shit splatters a lot of people who never wanted to have to wipe it off.


* I flew from Newcastle to London to Amsterdam to New York to Chicago not long after 9/11. I got all the way to New York before security decided my deodorant was unacceptable for air travel. As the guard was confiscating it, I noticed a sign behind her saying that it was perfectly acceptable to carry a gun on the plane providing you inform the crew before you board.

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