Poet on a Hill

Saturday, 19 September 2009


After every scare you get told yet more stories about the latest clampdown on airport security. And you think, ‘Well, they’ve had centuries of experience at dealing with spies and terrorists and things, so by now they must have every angle sussed. Let’s face it, there’s no way anyone’s ever going to get another bomb aboard a plane.’ But then another nutter gets through with an exploding pacemaker or a stick of dynamite in place of his penis. And we’re off again with more assurances about the latest improved surveillance techniques.

But it’s all a joke. Honest. I flew up to Edinburgh recently and in that bit where you take off your coat and shoes and walk through the gate with your trousers round your ankles because they’re x-raying your belt for machinegun bullets, I watched in wonder as they led this little old north-European lady to an interrogation table and stood her on the naughty-step for 10 minutes while they did all kinds of chemical checks on her toothpaste. It turned out that they were checking to see if it was some kind of witches brew that was about to remove the forthcoming flight from the easyJet schedule.

On the homeward trip I watched them do the same to a doddery old north-European man, along with an assortment of other equally unlikely volunteers for the suicide squad. While, at the same time, all kinds other far more fearsome characters were going through unchallenged. I mean men in dark glasses, women with studs in their noses and tattoos on their arms; even people with gliding eyes and ticks and things; all going through on the nod.

In the case of the old lady I was willing to accept that MI5 had probably unearthed murky material on the internet that led them to believe that Help the Aged was about to kick off with the Mother of All Revolutions. But now it looked much bigger than that. So I asked one of the sentinels what it was all about. And he said, ‘We check every third person for explosives.’

‘Eh?! Run that past me again.’

‘We check every third person, sir. Step over here and put your Pearly White on the table.’

Hmm. Let’s think about this. We’re at war with Islamic terrorists. Or at least, they are at war with us. They’ve said so. And, to prove it, they’ve already taken a few planes out of circulation, to say nothing of buses and trains and things. And now they say they want to blow the rest of us up. In fact, they are so keen to atomise us all that they will quite happily vaporise themselves at the same time. So let’s face it, we’re not dealing with the brightest stars in the galaxy here. I didn’t get many marks on the tacticians’ course but I did learn enough to know that you lob the hand grenade as far as possible and dive for cover. You don’t tuck it in your Y-fronts and run towards the enemy. Think abourrit, no self respecting IRA bomber would stick his holdall under his own table in a restaurant. This is all basic stuff. So we can reasonably conclude that the average Islamic terrorist is not quite the full set. They are beatable – if you play your cards right.

Now, during World War II we were fighting the Germans and Italians. So Churchill interned all their likely sympathisers. That is, Germans and Italians living in the UK. He didn’t intern every third person. He could have, but he didn’t. He targeted his potential enemy and interned them. And it worked. We won. And the experts will tell you that that if Churchill had simply interned every third person – on balance we would probably have lost.

I’m not going to bore you with the technicalities here. But Churchill led us to victory by outsmarting the enemy. And that’s what you’ve got to do; outsmart the foe. So, in today’s money, how might Churchill have tackled this toothpaste problem? Well, to start with, he might have reasoned that, as the enemy are Islamic terrorists, it might be a good idea to examine the denture cream of anyone who looked like a son of the prophet or was peeping out from the inside of a burka. Failing that, every third man with a beard or woman in a headscarf might turn something up; but not – just every third person – black, white or indifferent. Nor do you concentrate on every third Methodist, Catholic or Scottish Wee-free. Think tactics.

OK, the Germans and Italians were smart. So Churchill had to outsmart them – beat them at their own game. But when your enemy’s mindless you don’t win by trying to be a bigger idiot.