Howard Jacobson: Twenty-two, male and introspective – of course he should have been on a no-fly list

It seems that if you can’t replenish the human race, depleting it is the next best thing

Saturday 02 January 2010 01:00 GMT

Well, let's kick the new year off by looking on the bright side.

Given that the lesson we must learn from Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's failed attempt to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253 with 300 people on board is that you don't have to suffer deprivation or have a grievance to be a terrorist, that you don't have to come from an uncaring family to want to destroy other families, and that an education is often more potent in the fomenting of an ideology than the lack of one (never has it been more true that a little learning is a dangerous thing). Given these self-evident truths, shouldn't we be thankful that so many of our homegrown young men are aggrieved, do come from uncaring families, and are at the receiving end not of a little learning but of no learning whatsoever? Rejoice, I say. Better to roll ignoramuses off the national production line than mass murderers. Could it be that Ed Balls knows what he's doing after all?

Not that we can wash our hands of Umar altogether. There is, I know, a Yemeni component to his education. But he was a student at University College London for a couple of years – mechanical engineering was his subject, a course of study which I suggest we now view with as much alarm as we view political science – and while I have no evidence that he was indoctrinated by fanatics while he was studying here, I don't see how he could have escaped having the usual anti-Western campus-poisons dripped into his ear. Any number of Muslim radicals and clerics in any number of countries have already been named as possible influences on his politics; but the toxins are widely available and disseminated over here, at college gates, in university societies, in the neurasthenic chit-chat of academics, on the internet, even in our national newspapers. Why, if you're reading The Independent online today you'll probably find examples of precisely the misinformed drivel I'm talking about posted as comments on this column.

Be that as it may, the plain truth of the matter is this: let a student be the slightest bit susceptible, just about able to read, with too much time on his hands, too few girlfriends, a handful of university chums similarly vague in their comprehension of world events, and a computer at his disposal – and who needs the Yemen?

Careless talk cost lives. Every time we ascribe only malignant motives to ourselves, fulminate fatuously, in the style of The Guardian's fatuous fulminator Seumas Milne, against "the lawless savagery of the US campaign of killings, torture, kidnappings and incarceration", call every neo-con a Zionist, every Zionist a racist supremacist, and every woman in a short skirt a slut – I'm not sure what we call a Zionist in a short skirt but I bet one of Umar's pals knows – we stimulate the imaginations of those whose aimlessness is suddenly given purpose if the world can be shown to be a conspiracy of the unrighteous against the righteous, of the West against the rest. Boom! Merry Christmas! Why not? What's to lose?

Those who hate religion will see this as another instance of God's murderousness. But religion is only the smokescreen. The great atheist tyrannies of the last century recruited their foot soldiers in an identical manner – targeting partially educated, preferably pampered, but certainly crestfallen young men for whom the usual safety valves of dissoluteness have for some reason failed to open. We should remember this when we rail against the morals of the young. Next time we are honked at by a stretch-limoload of vomiting adolescents we should give a little prayer of thanks. As long as they're out on the town pissed they're not in their rooms drawing up plans to blow up aeroplanes. Ditto sex. Here's hoping they're getting as much of that as they can handle, too. It's not a 100 per cent proof, but, in the main, intercourse is a great solvent of ideology. Whatever you think of the pure in mind, beware, reader, the pure in body.

A few weeks ago I took part in an Intelligence Squared debate, speaking against the motion, "Everything a man does, he does to get laid." Thirty years ago I would have spoken for it. "Everything a young man does, he does to get laid," strikes me as evolutionarily unanswerable. What I remember about being a young man was how little choice I had. The impulses that drove me were not mine, I was simply the host body. I didn't know it at the time but I see clearly now that my genes were urgently seeking replication at the behest of the human race itself. If mankind were to continue, I had to continue it. Not only me, of course. All of us that age. But you feel it as an injunction laid on you alone. This thing I must do, else I have no function and humanity no future.

Now stopper this compulsion. Where does the energy go? Well, war is one alternative that has worked well for millennia. Don't ask me to explain the hows or the whys, but it seems that if you can't replenish the human race, depleting it is the next best thing. Perhaps doing the one is a way of taking vengeance for being denied the opportunity of doing the other. Or maybe you're depleting so that the pressure on the next generation to replenish will be even greater. Whatever the explanation, young males are evidently charged with some great and mysterious population responsibility, of which blowing up an aeroplane is a recent variation. Understood in this way – and the crazies at the gates and in the lecture halls of every English university certainly understand it – Umar is merely acting out what evolution tells him.

Which is why we should have been keeping him in our sights. The Americans tell us he was already on a list. I should hope so. He's 22. All males of 22 should be on a list. Why he wasn't on a no-fly list is a question that Barack Obama is asking his security advisors. The answer they will give him is that Umar wasn't considered a serious enough threat. Ha! Twenty-two, male, introspective, never one to vomit out of a stretch limo, and a sometime student at a London university – if he isn't a serious enough threat, who is?

If you're a man you don't fly before you're 30, is my proposal. And you don't go to university. You go out, get pissed, and have a lot of sex. That way we'll all sleep more safely in our beds.

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