The gates of absurdity

The September 11 attacks of 2001 have obliged us all to take part in a theater of the absurd on the stage of public security. After each terrorist attack, or attempt, security measures are ratcheted up. This would make sense if it weren’t already evident that these measures don’t stop terrorism. «Asymmetric warfare» has found its perfect symmetry: the few (the terrorists) attack the few in order to terrorize the many, and the authorities crack down on the many in order to frighten the few. The failed attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up a jetliner with 278 passengers over Detroit on Christmas Day highlights the parameters of this strange war by proxy and how citizens pay an inordinately high price for each side’s effort to gain points against the other. According to current information, the 23-year-old Nigerian was trained to use sophisticated explosives by members of al-Qaida in Yemen. From there he traveled to Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria and the Netherlands, where he boarded the plane for Detroit. Where he got the explosives remains unclear. Things are further complicated by the fact that Abdulmutallab became radicalized while a student in London and through his contacts in Yemen with an American-born preacher, who was also in contact with Major Nidal Malik Hasan, the US Army psychiatrist accused of killing 13 people at Fort Hood in the United States in November. As President Barack Obama conceded, the US security services ought to have tracked down the young Nigerian long before he boarded the flight for America. They had all the indications. Even his own father had informed the US Embassy in Lagos that his son had adopted extremist views. Information had also been received that al-Qaida in Yemen was training a Nigerian for a terror attack. The target was hugely symbolic. Blowing up a plane over an American city on Christmas Day would drive home al-Qaida’s propaganda point that it can hit the US anywhere, any time and that all security measures are futile. The attempt failed only because Abdulmutallab botched his attempt to ignite the explosives hidden in his underwear. The American reaction was on two fronts: Obama demanded explanations and the immediate reorganization of US security services; the US proscribed the citizens of 14 countries (among them Nigeria, Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia), considering them all possible terror suspects and forcing them to undergo even stricter searches before allowing them to board flights for America. Furthermore, Britain, the Netherlands and Italy (at least) are introducing new-generation body scanners that depict passengers naked on security officials’ screens, even though passengers are suffering enough already, with long queues and cancelled flights. At the same time, there is some skepticism, at least in Britain, that the new scanners would have detected the explosives on the young Nigerian. The stricter security measures are of no use if the intelligence services do not improve, as the incidents at Detroit, Fort Hood and a double-agent’s killing of seven CIA agents in Afghanistan demonstrate. But the security measures play another role: They come across as a show of determination and force, for the benefit of political opponents and citizens who need to believe that greater sacrifices will lead to greater security. The truth, though, is that the authorities are doing what they can, without this necessarily being effective. For instance, the US have not put Britain on any blacklist, even though many extremists started out from there, because they do not (yet) want to alienate their closest ally. Also, where the sheer number of passengers is so great that it is impossible to check them all, there simply aren’t any checks – as is the case in the subways of many major cities. That’s where we see the absurdity of today’s situation: States erect imposing gateways to show off their power but beside the gates there are no walls.

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