This one deserves to be reposted in full, because too many Americans are susceptible to the craven U.S. media's attempts to spur us to support military action (and an anti-civil rights intelligence apparatus) ostensibly meant to keep us safe from non-existent threats -- bumbling terrorists with soggy shoes, crotches on fire, and the like.
And as a frequent international traveler let me say, I'm sick of it! It's all because of unaccountable, CYA, security-apparatus bureaucrats in DHS and TSA whose only concern is, "Not on my watch!", statistics, facts and our comfort be damned.
By Jason Edward Harrington
September 28, 2014 | Guardian
The other day in Syria, the US conducted air strikes on a relatively unknown and possibly non-existent entity called the Khorasan group, which sounds more like a job-killing consulting firm than a people-killing al-Qaida spinoff. It was a surprise plot point in the campaign against Isis that left the kind of Strangelovian headlines that have become par for the course in the War on Terror. Take this one, from the Independent: “Syria air strikes: Khorasan Group ‘were working to make toothpaste bombs and explosives that could pass through airport security’”. Or this one: “Khorasan Group plotted attack against US with explosive clothes”.
This isn’t the first time the plane-flying public has gotten word of cavity-fighting and/or sartorial threats to international airliners: the concept of the toothpaste bomb first surfaced during the Sochi Olympics earlier this year, and the clothes-dipped-in-liquid-
explosives menace came to attention back in August 2013. And of course, just a few months ago, there was speculation about the need for airline passengers to fear an iBomb. The only thing that changed between then and now is that anonymous officials slapped a name on the alleged masterminds behind these absurd plots, and then dropped bombs on them.
Now that the global aviation system has been menaced by a shoe bomber, an underwear bomber, a hypothetical “Frankenbomber” and even ecologically friendly bombers, pretty much any western government could conceivably spout the results of a terror plot-generating algorithm and successfully sell it to the public as casus belli:
Common item + bomb + plot = justified military action and hassle at airports. Deodorant bomb plot? Sure, why the hell not? Sounds scary. Send in the drones, confiscate all the Old Spice.
There have been conflicting reports as to how “imminent” the Khorasan group’s aviation attack really was. But regardless of whether these alleged terrorist masterminds had their favorite sweaters weaponized and ready to blow, or were just sort of thinking about it, exactly what are we supposed to feel when confronted with news of such counter-terror campaigns carried out on our behalf? Relief and fear? Relief that our military may have neutralized a tube of toothpaste, and fear that the next Hollywood-ready plot is still imminently lurking out there?
Having worked for the Transportation Security Administration for six years, I actually think laughter is one appropriate response. It’s hard not to see the funny facets of a never-ending campaign against a nebulous enemy (Axis of Evil a decade ago, Network of Death today) in which you are issued a terror intelligence memorandum detailing the standard operating procedure for the confiscation of cupcakes. (“Cupcakes have got to have a reasonable level of icing to be allowed onto a plane,” one TSA manager advised us.)
My former co-workers and I are not the only ones who found some of this stuff funny. In 2012, the international relations scholar Charlotte Heath-Kelly argued in a paper in the European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research that the War on Terror can be viewed as the lovechild of Franz Kafka and Monty Python as much as that of any vice president and foreign minister.
“The War on Terror undermines itself by narrating a liminal space where its claims of security appear ridiculous,” Heath-Kelly writes. “A failure to laugh consolidates the War on Terror discourse and the joke it is playing on us by taking it seriously.”
If we could get Catch 22 out of World War II, and Dr Strangelove out of the Cold War, it should come as no surprise if the more skeptical among us laugh when our governments inform us, with a straight face, that we just launched a unilateral air strike so as to eliminate a guy who maybe had explosives in his dopp kit. Perhaps the best way to show our leaders that we’re no longer buying the chimerical terror threats sold to us as justifications for war is by laughing those claims right out of the room.
As Thomas Jefferson said long before the TSA made you walk around barefoot and beltless with a bunch of strangers, “Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions.”
Many would say the plots of the supposedly deadly and ingenious terrorists upon whom we’re dropping bombs would be no laughing matter if brought to fruition. But a few people bearing analogues to these hypothetical threats have actually made it aboard planes in the past, and the results comprised a relative comedy of errors:
- In 2001, Richard Reid attempted to bring down a plane by igniting his shoes, but his foot perspiration rendered his amateur IED’s fuse soggy.
- On Christmas Day 2009, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up a flight to Detroit with a bomb sewn into his underwear, but managed instead to burn his genitals.
- Security experts still argue whether the liquids plot of 2006 – the reason we’re not allowed to bring a container filled with more than 3.4 ounces of liquid aboard planes in the US – was even plausible: Turns out, mixing hydrogen peroxide, sulfuric acid and acetone is difficult even in the calm of a science lab, let alone an airplane lavatory.
Real-life, successful terrorist plots tend to be too mundane to fit the narratives of big-budget Hollywood thrillers. Attempts at the movie-level terrorist plot end up playing out more like Benny Hill than Sergeant Brody.
I believe that it’s healthy to openly ridicule politically expedient, overblown terror threats such as this Khorasan group – that known unknowns, fashion menaces, underwear bombers and other political hobgoblins should be feared about as much, if not less, than a cab ride to the airport. But there is at least one deadly serious aspect to odd new turns and mysterious enemies in the War on Terror: real people die when missiles go flying in retaliation for absurd, hypothetical threats, and from the rubble of those missile strikes rise new waves of anti-western sentiment. The aspirations of the terrorists we bomb into existence may be grounded in gritty realism, as opposed to slapstick comedy.
And that may turn out to be no laughing matter.