Swift wrote Gulliver's Travels to "vex the world". Pope's target was "babbling blockheads". Those were the days. Though constitutionally more modest, less certain of our genius and more sceptical as to our effect – for the times we live in bruise easily – we share those great satirists' ambitions. If a writer can't vex the world a little every day, why would he bother to get up in the morning?
But satire when it descends to populist jeering – that's to say when it flatters the babbling blockheads rather than lambasts them – becomes a boorish, toothless and, on occasions, even a dangerous thing. There was a signal example of this last week in the wake of 17 police cars swooping on a suspect bus travelling along the M6 in Staffordshire.
Let me remind you of what this was all about. A passenger on the bus saw smoke coming from another traveller's bag. He didn't scream. He didn't try to jump out of the bus. He didn't tweet a fond farewell to his loved ones. He dialled 999 on his mobile phone. Highly commendable. Isn't this what mobile phones are for? That the police responded promptly to the call was highly commendable, too. We hear of 999 calls going unheeded. The operator could have said, "Oh, yeah, pull the other one. This is Staffordshire, mate. Nothing happens in Staffordshire."
So far, then, so good. A highly suspicious bag – I don't have to remind readers of this column that most bags don't smoke – was spotted by an alert member of the public who did the sensible thing, and the police responded sensibly in their turn. Or did they? This is where the jeerers, of whom one of the most obdurate and vociferous has been Nick Ferrari, shock-jock for LBC – don't ask me how I know this – saw their opportunity. Did it take 17 police cars, they wanted to know. Was it necessary for some of those police cars to contain armed marksmen? (Where the point of an unarmed marksman would be I don't know.) Weren't 13 fire engines 12 too many? Was it necessary to hold and body search 48 bus passengers – 48 "innocent" bus passengers, according to the Daily Mail? Did the police have to close the motorway, in the process stranding thousands of infuriated motorists who had Mock the Week to get home to. Cordons, cones, tents, decontamination units, for crying out loud! – all because, as it turned out, the smoking bag contained a fake cigarette.
The more primitive one's sense of humour, the more the contrast between a small cause and a large effect will strike one as amusing. A minor mishap creating major mayhem has been the staple of feeble sitcoms ever since the genre was invented. And so Nick Ferrari roared with that bumptious, plain man's outrage that early morning shock-jocks are obliged to manufacture to ensure their listeners don't nod off. It was a fake cigarette, for heaven's sake. A fake cigarette!!
One of his callers reasonably reminded him that the police didn't know that when they turned up at the scene. In the same spirit, I would remind the Daily Mail that the police didn't know that all 48 passengers were innocent. The justification for having police is that we sometimes need suspiciousness investigated. But Ferrari wasn't alone in finding the idea of precautionary zeal even more hilarious than the idea of mistaking a fake cigarette for a real bomb. All the police had to do was ask, the jeerers jeered.
Ask? Ask! It was hard to believe one's ears. Did they mean a single bobby should have tailed the bus on his bicycle, flagged it down at the lights, boarded it with apologies all round, and asked the owner of the suspicious bag – nicely – if he was a terrorist and whether that was a bomb he was carrying? Yes, that was exactly what they did mean. And if it had turned out to be a bomb? But it wasn't, for crying out loud. It was an electronic cigarette. And how were the police to know that? By asking!
How to explain this circle of moronic illogicality? I cannot. Perhaps some people lack a conditional tense or a suppositional gene. Perhaps they lack an imagination of disaster.
Myself – and I accept I speak as someone with a highly developed imagination of disaster: but then history is on my side – I don't think 17 police cars were too many. If anything, I'd have liked a dozen more, and a helicopter, if there wasn't one there already, and a fleet of ambulances, and a marksman (ideally armed) on every roof in Staffordshire. Were terrorism only the figment of our fears, it could be argued that this was an over-reaction, but where it is both a proven fact and a fervently declared ambition there is no such thing as over-reaction.
It's sometimes said that when we go in like this, with cop car sirens blaring and the emergency services at the ready, we hand victory to the terrorists. For this contention to be plausible, we have to imagine al-Qa'ida operatives in Tora Bora tuning in to LBC and rubbing their hands at the thought of the M6 in Staffordshire being closed for half a day. "Victory, fellow Mujahideen, is ours! Tomorrow, we will see how many lanes we can shut down on the A6144." But then I suppose global Jihad has to start somewhere.
Yes, there a few jumpy weeks ahead. Just getting people to the Games is going to be taxing, let alone getting them there safely. I'm staying home. Though even that might not be the end of it. Smoke issuing from my ears, if I happen to hear any more bilge about over-reaction, might alert a neighbour who might alert the authorities who might choose to drop paras on my terrace. It's the price you pay. Only a babbling blockhead would complain.