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Spooked by the Underwear Bomber

Instead of body scanners and ethnic profiling we need patience and resilience to tackle terrorism

Not long after the attacks of 11 September 2001, I went to hear the Arab-American stand-up comedian Ahmed Ahmed riff on the perils of airport security. "All you white people have it easy," he joked with the crowd. "You guys get to the airport like an hour, two hours before your flight. It takes me a month and a half."

He added: "Security has gotten so bad, I just turn up to the airport in a G-string." Perhaps Ahmed can now leave the G-string at home. In the wake of the foiled Christmas Day terror attack on a US airliner bound for Detroit, in which the Nigerian student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab concealed a package containing the highly explosive chemical powder PETN in his underwear, hi-tech body scanners are being rolled out in airports - a policy that will cost millions. It may seem the stuff of science fiction but these full-body, millimetre-wave scanners produce "naked" images of passengers and remove the need for "pat-down" searches.

Hooray! So will we, finally, be safe and secure in the skies? Er, not necessarily. Experts say that the explosive device smuggled on to the plane underneath Abdulmutallab's clothes would not have been detected by body scanners. Ben Wallace, the Conservative MP and former employee of the defence firm QinetiQ, one of the companies developing the scanners for airport use, said trials had shown that they picked up shrapnel and metal but that liquids and some plastics would be missed. "Gordon Brown is grasping at headlines if he thinks buying a couple of scanners will make us safer," he said.

Terrorism toolbox

So what does he suggest? "We must now start to ask if national security demands the use of profiling." But does profiling work, either? Is there a readily available racial or ethnic profile of a "terrorist"? Perhaps. But al-Qaeda is nothing if not multicultural, employing a racial diversity policy that would make Harriet Harman proud. Arabs? Mohamed Atta et al. Check. British Pakistanis? Mohammad Sidique Khan et al. Check. Hispanics? José Padilla, the so-called Dirty Bomber. Check. Black people? Richard Reid, the so-called Shoe Bomber and, now, Abdulmutallab, the Underwear Bomber. Check. Caucasians? Adam Gadahn (né Pearlman), the white Californian convert and media spokesman for al-Qaeda. Check. In fact, here's a thought: if a blond, blue-eyed member of al-Qaeda and I both arrived at a US airport to board the same flight, whom do you think the profiler would stop? Him or me?

Terrorism plays on our fears. Fear of the next attack. Fear of being killed. Fear of an unseen enemy. To succumb so easily to such fears and the attendant hysteria and paranoia is to grant an easy victory to the terrorists.

Why not stay calm and not panic? Not overreact? Would this not make more sense? Why do we urge our leaders to promise us absolute or perfect security? Why do we encourage our securocrats as they reach into the terrorism toolbox for ever more intrusive and draconian measures? (Ninety-day detention, anyone? Forty-two days?)

Our manipulated fears can overwhelm us. It matters not a jot that our fears are largely unfounded. Take flying. Air travel remains the safest mode of transportation known to man. Studies show that, each year in the United States, one in 6,800 drivers dies in a car accident. The rate for airline passengers is one in 1.6 million. But as the satirist Bill Maher says: "We don't declare a war on cars."

Let me be clear: terrorism is a clear and present danger. But it is not all-pervading, nor is it all-conquering and nor should the minuscule risk of being killed by terrorists keep any of us awake at night. "Outside of 2001, fewer people have died in America from international terrorism than have drowned in toilets," says John Mueller, a professor at Ohio State University. "Even with the September 11 attacks included in the count, however, the number of Americans killed by international terrorism over the period is not a great deal more than the number killed by lightning."

But our deep-seated fears and anxieties seem to have trumped calm and rational analysis. Terrorism remains a growth industry. In 2003, the US department of homeland security compiled a list of 160 potential terrorist targets across the nation. By the following year, the figure had mushroomed to 28,000; in 2005 it reached 77,000 and, by 2006, the list contained approximately 300,000 targets - including fire hydrants, which were ludicrously labelled a "top vulnerability".

Such threat inflation has crossed the Atlantic. Last year, Lord West, the UK security minister, unveiled plans to protect every public building in Britain against suicide car bombers. Every single public building? This is madness.

Hawks and doves

So, too, is irresponsible talk of yet another war against yet another Muslim country - this time, the Middle East's poorest state, Yemen, where the Underwear Bomber is believed to have been radicalised. On Fox News, Senator Joe Lieberman, an arch-hawk, proclaimed: "Iraq was yesterday's war. Afghanistan is today's war. If we don't act pre-emptively, Yemen will be tomorrow's war." Lieberman has never come across a Muslim nation he didn't want to bomb or occupy - but what is President Obama's excuse? Or Gordon Brown's? In recent days, both have talked up the threat of Yemen, as well as the threat of international terrorism. They seem to feel compelled to prove that they are not "weak" on national security.

Perhaps they should follow John Kerry, their mutual friend. In an interview during the 2004 election, the senator and former Democrat presidential candidate displayed a much less apocalyptic world-view than our present political leaders. "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance . . . It's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life."

Indeed. There is no scanner, no technology, no security measure that will give us absolute security from terrorism. Nor does terrorism have a military solution. What is required on our part is patience, resilience and a sense of historical perspective. In meetings with ministers and officials across Whitehall, I often see the Second World War poster "Keep Calm and Carry On" on the backs of doors. Our leaders would be wise to heed the advice. Perhaps even adopt it as their New Year resolution. Keep calm. Carry on.


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Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Obama: the year of living dangerously