Tuesday 22 August 2006

Must the terrorist always win?

I owe my reader(s) an apology. Yes, I know that’s true every week, but this time there is a specific reason. Last month I suggested that the chronic unreliability of the East Coast Main Line train service meant that flying might be a feasible if environmentally irresponsible alternative. How wrong I was.

I booked four flights, but only took one. Things got off to a bad start when I made the idiotic error of pitching up at Newcastle International Airport at 1.30pm, thinking that this was a time at which one might be able to obtain something resembling lunch. How silly of me. Still, the hour’s delay in the departure of my BA flight to Gatwick gave me plenty of time to muse on my folly over a very expensive fizzy pint and packet of crisps.

The only refreshing thing about the journey itself was that, instead of the litany of implausible excuses conveyed by tannoy on GNER, the pilot cheerily announced that he had as little idea as we did why the flight was late, as he’d only just got onto the plane himself.

Then there was the insufferable young prig in the next seat, the bus from the plane to the terminal, the transit to the other terminal, and the train journey to where I actually wanted to be. When I finally got there, I looked at my watch and reflected that I could have driven from home just as quickly, with considerably less stress and discomfort, and at lower cost. ‘Right,’ I said to myself, ‘That’s it. I shall never fly again.’

Having consigned the tickets for my next journey to the bin, imagine my delight when the would-be terrorist incident of 9 August led to the flights concerned being cancelled, so that I qualified for a full refund. Thanks, lads.

Although I am one of the few beneficiaries of this alleged plot, I do wonder whether they ever actually intended to carry it out. After all, as things turned out, they garnered as much publicity and caused as much chaos and inconvenience (if rather less grief) as if they’d actually consigned a thousand fellow travellers to oblivion. And conveniently avoided that presumably buttock-clenching moment when the suicide bombs had to be detonated.

It would have been much more of a victory over the terrorists if we’d just shrugged our shoulders and carried on as usual, rather than having our airports filled with armed police and a host of restrictions imposed that make flying even less of a joy. Last week we were only a step away from making every air passenger strip naked and submit to an intimate body search before stepping on board the plane. And as soon as some fanatic devises an ingestible bomb, I dare say they’ll want X-rays, too.

Instead of the Government issuing edicts to every airline, why not allow a little consumer choice into the equation? WhatTheHell airlines could be set up with the unique selling proposition that you could take whatever you liked on board as hand luggage, with the downside that you stood a greater risk of being blown to smithereens mid-flight. It would be interesting to see how it fared.
In more phlegmatic times, when the air raid warning sounded, theatres and cinemas would warn their audiences so that those who wished to head for the shelters could do so, and then the show went on. It would be good to get back some element of free choice, otherwise the terrorist will win every time, even if the outrage is aborted.

Of course, it’s jolly convenient for governments who want to keep tabs on us to have these terrorists as an excuse for ever-increasing curbs on civil liberties – an outdated concept, John Reid announced, literally the day before the alleged plot was uncovered.

No wonder some cynics are asking: are the Government and terrorists really fighting each other, or are they in league against the rest of us?

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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