Tom Sutcliffe: We're addicted to the Andy McNab factor

Social Studies: There are times when the highest virtue is to be a man of inaction
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The Independent Online

Since nobody else is likely to do it right now, could I just take a moment out to praise the professionalism of the six special forces soldiers at the centre of the Government's latest foreign affairs cock-up? The general consensus seems to be that this wasn't the SAS's (or SBS's) finest hour. One headline characterised their brief excursion to Benghazi as a "Dad's Army mission" and most reports used words such as "botched" and "humiliation".

Hard to gainsay, really. When your covert insertion ends with captors showing off your special-issue underpants for the cameras (as reported in The Sun) nobody's likely to be handing out medals. But just think how bad it could have been had their fire discipline been worse. Given that the men who arrested them were described as "armed farmers", I don't think there's much doubt that they could have successfully resisted capture, had they chosen to. But they certainly wouldn't have been able to guarantee doing so without casualties on both sides, or possibly leaving behind them a mess that makes this one look modest by comparison.

By staying calm and going quietly, they almost certainly saved Mr Hague from an international humiliation. That wasn't how they were supposed to get him out of trouble, of course. Or indeed Mr Cameron – who seems unlikely to have been left out of the loop in such a delicate manner and who should therefore – just as much as Mr Hague – be regarded as having "personally approved" the plan. But why did either of them do so – when it's possible for a British warship to pull up in the dock in Benghazi in broad daylight?

One suggestion is that the escorted party was an MI6 agent, not the "diplomat" of early reports. But even if that's true, a posse of six heavily-armed men seems a very curious way of maintaining his cover. We'll eventually find out, I daresay, perhaps in 30 years' time and perhaps sooner. But in the interim I'd like to suggest that it just felt more manly and decisive to do it this way – and that both Mr Hague and Cameron were badly in need of a morale boost.

Mocked for their indecisiveness, for a bellicosity in speech that wasn't necessarily going to be translated into action, it must have been a real fillip for them to give the go-ahead for an undercover operation. And to say, "Well, no actually, that seems a little risky and over-complicated to me" would have required very cool nerve while under fire.

It is, though, the kind of nerve we hope for from politicians. The SAS are for storming through windows with stun grenades in the face of unknown odds. Foreign Secretaries and Prime Ministers are for hanging back and trying the side door first. Or perhaps coming back a little later.

There are times, indeed, when their highest virtue is to be men of inaction – though it can't be be easy for them to feel that way. It's why Michael Portillo, as Defence Secretary, made that cringe-inducing conference speech in which he borrowed the SAS's motto "Who Dares Wins". He'd succumbed to the Andy McNab factor – the seductive glamour (for the non-combatant) of direct engagement. I suspect something similar happened the other day – and the responsibility for the embarrassing fiasco that resulted lies nowhere else but at the very top.

Alien life may not be so exciting after all

Sadly the news reports that suggested alien bacteria had been discovered in a meteorite turned out to be a little premature. The photograph used on at least one website to illustrate this exciting news turned out to be of a terrestrial organism used by Dr Richard Hoover for the purposes of comparison. And while Titanospirillum velox did look gratifyingly otherworldy (despite being from this one) there was more than a hint of the Toasted Cheese Virgin Mary about the resemblence detected in the meteorite specimen.

The interpretation of these objects – one internet commentator suggested – offered a classic instance of pareidolia, that fixed human tendency to read significance into random noise. And since Dr Richard Hoover has previously claimed to have spotted extraterrestrial organisms in space rocks (without being able to convince fellow-scientists) wishful thinking on his part can't be entirely ruled out.

The incident does offer solid evidence of one thing, though. While Hollywood likes to represent the moment at which we finally learn that we're not alone as undeniable and (literally) earth-shattering – the actuality is almost certainly going to be a messy anti-climax. The words most likely to be said aren't "Take me to your leader" but "Is that it? Are you absolutely sure?"

Much better if you can't see to the end

Received opinion has it that the internet weakens the attention span. I wonder. I quite often read a newspaper article online at night and am startled the to discover just how long it was when I see it in print the next day. I have a feeling it may actually be easier to read long-form journalism online than on the page – if only because the length of the journey never looms ahead of you. Scrolling means you never have to decide whether you're interested enough to run a marathon, only whether you want to carry on running right now. And the result is that I get miles further than I might otherwise have. Am I the odd one out?