Howard Jacobson: 'Victory is ours,' declared the Mujahideen. 'Today, it's the M6. Tomorrow, the A6144!'

I don’t think 17 police cars were too many. If anything, I’d have liked a dozen more, and a helicopter

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Law Costs

Highly Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - This is a very unusual law c...

Junior VB.NET Application Developer (ASP.NET, SQL, Graduate)

£28000 - £30000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior VB.NET ...

C# .NET Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, jQuery, XML, XLST)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Web De...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Scientists have discovered the perfect cheese for pizzas (it's mozzarella)  

Life of pie: Hard cheese for academics

Simmy Richman
The woman featured in the Better Together campaign's latest video  

Tea and no sympathy: The 'Better Together' campaign's mistake is to assume it knows how women think

Jane Merrick
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution