Spooked by the Underwear Bomber

By Hasan, Mehdi | New Statesman (1996), January 11, 2010 | Go to article overview

Spooked by the Underwear Bomber


Hasan, Mehdi, New Statesman (1996)


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? Jose 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 (ne Pearl-man), 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. …

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