A relentless diet of false alarms and terror hype

With each new mistake, the public grows more suspicious of the credibility of the terrorist threat
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The Independent Online

There are whispers within the airline industry suggesting that the security alerts put out by US intelligence are "commercially inspired". US operators, the conspiracy theory goes, mop up all the transatlantic passengers when British and French flights are so regularly cancelled.

There are whispers within the airline industry suggesting that the security alerts put out by US intelligence are "commercially inspired". US operators, the conspiracy theory goes, mop up all the transatlantic passengers when British and French flights are so regularly cancelled.

Even by the general standard of paranoid theories, this one seems pretty foolish. Constant delays and regular threats of terrorism are just as likely to make people think twice before travelling to and from the US at all, which is not of the smallest economic benefit to America, her airlines, or to anybody else.

It is this fact, indeed, which has provoked speculation of a quite different nature, which suggests instead that it is terrorist operatives themselves who are planting flight numbers in communications that they know will be intercepted, in the hope of provoking irritation, inconvenience, nervousness and economic malaise.

That would certainly be a sophisticated terrorist wheeze (rather soothing in its lack of physical victims), and one that does explain a few of the mystifying actions of US intelligence.

Some flights, notably BA223, have been repeatedly cancelled because the digits contained in the flight number have been mentioned in suspect e-mails. On one occasion, the flight reached the US, and was directed to a remote site at Washington's Dulles Airport. There, passengers were interrogated for several hours by the FBI.

It seems clear that US intelligence did not have a clue what or whom it might be looking for. And since it found nothing suspicious, it is easy to assume that a piece of deliberately targeted false information was being acted upon.

But at other times, it is US intelligence which seems to have generated unfounded suspicions. Much has been made of the débâcle over the Air France flight stopped because a whole cabal of terrorists appeared to be travelling on it. It turned out that the suspected passengers instead included a five-year-old with the same name as the leader of a Tunisian terror group, an elderly Chinese woman, and a Welsh insurance agent.

It is the way in which so many flights are intercepted, yet are never found to have been actually under threat, that is inspiring people to start formulating outlandish theories about commercial interests . But it's inspiring more widespread cynicism as well. There is a growing suspicion - already widespread before the war in Iraq began, and hugely fanned by the results of the Hutton inquiry - that the US government, and the British too, assume that it is easier to control a population that lives in fear.

In order to combat terrorism, our government and the US government needs the co-operation of the people. Yes, we want to be informed about terrorist threats. Yes, we want to be on the alert and able to judge whether we have witnessed suspicious behaviour.

But the relentless diet of false alarms is becoming counter-productive. It's by no means just the "credible risks" that end in cancelled flights which turn out to have been unthreatening. It's by no means just those elusive weapons of mass destruction, or the apocalyptic threats that we should stock up on water and tinned food in case they really did arrive in 45 minutes.

It's also the tanks and troops that were stationed outside Heathrow, even though they eventually withdrew without finding anything at all. Or the so-called ricin factory discovered last year, which was trumpeted as "powerful evidence of the continued terrorist threat", although in the end the germ warfare laboratory at Porton Down couldn't prove that any ricin had ever been in the flat touted as a significant terrorist base. Or the fact that, although 500 people have been held under the new terrorist laws, only two have been convicted.

With each new mistake, each new piece of terror hype that comes to nothing, the public becomes more suspicious of the credibility of the terrorist threat. There is widespread disenchantment with the Blair government. But there is also a resentment of US attitudes to national and international security that would have been unthinkable a year ago, before the "war on terror" had been used as cover for a war on something else.

Perhaps it isn't surprising to note that a union leader is heading the awkward squad on this matter. But actually, Jim McAuslan, of the pilot's union Balpa, speaks for the suspicions of many when he expresses scepticism about the "credible risk" discovered by US security services. His argument is that terrorists would not target British flights anyway, since post-Lockerbie they have been highly secure.

Mr McAuslan has spoken out before against US-led arrangements for flight security. He and many others in the airline industry are against the idea of sky marshals on flights. Certainly it seems bizarre not to allow nail-clippers into an airline fuselage, but to legislate for the guaranteed presence of a gun.

We are assured that air marshals will be incognito. But if a terror group identified one, surely they could get onto a flight and get the gun off him? However mad the idea, the US says we must have them, so have them we must.

Meanwhile, at airports, we have become a nation of security experts, constantly exchanging views about how this wasn't checked, or how that could have been brought on board. The procedure whereby even the most banal of bladed implements must be handed in if it is discovered in hand luggage feels increasingly like public relations. At one London airport, the bladed instruments are displayed in a big Perspex container, like a museum's donation. Honest citizens post their tools into the box in the same fashion. Apparently, they are all melted down when the box is full.

Nice imagery, but asking people to co-operate in this matter doesn't actually tackle the real problem. It is those who wish to disguise their blades and smuggle them on board who are the threat. Or are they, now that hindsight's wisdom has been visited upon us? Cockpits are locked and reinforced in the wake of the 2001 atrocities in the United States, and passengers know only too well what can be done by a madman with a broken bottle (glass duty-free is still allowed on board, even if corkscrews aren't).

The whole attitude to airport security seems heavily larded with propaganda rather than security issues. At first, I agreed that the British student, Samantha Marson, who had claimed to have three bombs in her bag, had been treated fairly by airport attendants who "couldn't be too careful".

Now, though, after she was held for four days in a US jail, was released on £2,700 bail, and must show up again in court in a few days, charged with being a bomb hoaxer (maximum sentence 15 years), I find that I deplore the way she has been scapegoated. She is 21. She made a joke in gross bad taste about the size of her bag and the time it was taking to search it. When challenged, she apologised three times, then burst into tears.

She's not a bomb hoaxer, or any sort of criminal. It is not criminal to make a dark joke, and dark jokes don't cause security breaches. She has admitted her stupidity to the entire world, and been dumped by her boyfriend. That's enough, surely, to send out a message about such behaviour. Living with the threat of al- Qa'ida terrorism is difficult to come to terms with. But living with petty state bullying and overblown state propaganda is unacceptable.