Howard Jacobson: Constant worry is the least of my concerns

If the terror threat is lowered, that’s because we’ve lowered it. Worry is part of our genetic inheritance

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The subject of today's column is worry. On Worry I'd have called it had I been Montaigne. Sur Souci.

My argument, if you're a worrier who needs to know where he's being led, is that there can never be too much of it. Only fools don't worry a lot and only the dead don't worry at all. Since the majority of us would rather be alive than dead, it makes sense to take whatever precautions favour that preference. And what are precautions but worry in action?

On the day newspapers were wondering whether the exploding printers sent from Yemen were designed to go off mid-air rather than just blow off the skull caps of a few Jews in Chicago, I listened to the panel of Any Questions? unanimously deriding the security arrangements at British airports. Peter Hitchens said the terrorist threat was exaggerated, and Tariq Ali said it would go away if we stopped invading Muslim countries. How these redoubtably irascible men were able to cosy up to each other on the issue, when they were in fact making opposing arguments, escaped me. If the terrorist threat was as exaggerated as they agreed it was – there was more chance of being killed by an eagle falling out of the sky, Hitchens insisted – then our invasion of Muslim countries wasn't sending as many young British-born Muslim men as insane as Ali said it was.

I understand the logical difficulty you face, when it comes to discussing the threat of terror, if you are habitually anti-American and anti-government. You need terror to be there so you can accuse the imperial powers of fuelling it, but you also need it not to be there so you can accuse the imperial powers of scaremongering in order to impose repressive measures.

For myself, I no sooner learnt that there was a danger of an eagle falling out of the sky – it must be substantial because Hitchens considered it more likely than a terrorist attack, and there have been several of those in recent years – than I wrote to my MP asking what measures were in place to stop it. Netting, for example. Or at least, if I'm the only person worrying, netting over my house. Since I didn't give him my address or contact details – you can't risk passing on that kind of information to people you don't know – I don't expect to hear back. But I know the answer, anyway. Netting over my house will interfere with my neighbours' television reception. So we fiddle while Rome burns.

For people who don't want to be searched at airports because there is no significant threat I propose entirely separate travel arrangements. Their own runways, their own pilots, their own planes. Sans Souci Airlines. Let Tariq Ali and Peter Hitchens share a drink in business class while rejoicing how safe the world has become since America made it more dangerous.

I, meanwhile, will do as I'm told. Take off my coat and jacket, remove my belt, slip out of my shoes, spill my loose change into a plastic tray, open my computer and show the contents of my toothpick holder that happens to resemble a silver bullet. I won't be smart. I won't say, "What do you think I've got in my toothpick holder, arsehole? Exploding toothpicks?" For the simple reason that someone might well have exploding toothpicks in his toothpick holder and I might just be that someone.

So it's a nuisance? So it adds another hour to my flight? So what? How else would I be spending the time? Shopping for duty-free liquor which I can get cheaper at Marks & Spencer? Buying another digital camera I can't use? Sitting on a bench and twittering?

Reader, mankind has never been so idle. Look around you the next time you are in an airport lounge and, if you can tear yourself away from your own footling electronic device, observe others doing obeisance to theirs – phoning spouses who would rather be asleep about the progress of journeys that haven't yet begun, texting, fiddling with their headphones, playing Sudoku on their iPads, reading The Sun on Kindle. If they were at home they'd be staring at pornography. Unless they're women, in which case they'd be leafing through Abdominoplasty Monthly or Celebrity Botox – reading matter that's every bit as damaging to society as pornography. It might not make you blind but it no less surely turns you dumb.

And because we are kept away from all this for half an hour in order that our worthless lives might be prolonged, we complain. Terror threat? What terror threat? I haven't been blown up by any terrorist. To which the answer is: "And why might that be, dummy? Could it be because the terrorist is as bored by being searched as you are – and maybe just a mite deterred – and thinks it would be easier to try bringing down a cargo plane?"

It's a simple point but would seem to have escaped Tariq Ali and Peter Hitchens: if the terror threat is lowered, that's because we've lowered it. Worry works. It wasn't invented by governments whose foreign policies we happen to dislike. It is part of our genetic inheritance. Worry was instrumental in getting us out of the primeval soup, as can be proved by the fact that the life forms that worry least are still down there. And if we are wrong to worry sometimes, how disastrous is that? Pascal said wager on God, because if there is no God you have nothing to lose, and if there is a God you have everything to gain. I say wager similarly on terror. No worry was ever wasted.

Of the arguments against precaution the most stupid are those which say that by worrying too much about security we are doing the terrorists' work for them. Reader, the ambition of terrorists is to blow the hegemony of the Western powers sky high, not to inconvenience its citizens by keeping them muttering in a queue. Were it only the latter, then Ryanair would be accounted a successful terrorist organisation. Its boss, Michael O'Leary, has just said a) that security costs airlines too much (next he'll be proposing cutting down on the number of wings a plane needs), and b) that Osama bin Laden is laughing in his cave. Myself, I doubt bin Laden feels his work is done because I have to take my shoes off every time I fly; if he is laughing in his cave it is more likely to be because he is reflecting how much more comfortable he is stretched out on a rock than anyone travelling Ryanair.

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