Three stories for you:
Two air marshals panic
on a flight from Atlanta to Philadelphia, brandishing guns at terrified
passengers and arresting a blameless former Army major (of Indian descent,
natch) for "observing too closely" what was going on, according
to the newly-formed Transportation Safety Administration.
During the IMF meetings in Washington, DC, this weekend, there’s
a medium-sized anti-war demonstration outside my hotel. As it’s coming
to an end, one group of protestors decides to walk (or march) in the
same general direction as I’m headed, towards the IMF. They’re punk
kids like I see hanging out in the East Village the whole time, maybe
19 years old, wearing torn jeans and bandanas covering their faces.
If asked, they’d probably describe themselves as anarchists. As they
start walking and chanting down Connecticut Avenue, they’re followed
by a group of policemen. There are maybe 20 kids in all; the total number
of police can’t have been below 40. Half of the officers were on white
bicycles with the words "Smith & Wesson" on their sides;
the other half were on motorcycles. All of them were a lot bigger, and
a lot more threatening, than any of the demonstrators.They ride up alongside
the kids, gunning their engines, glaring at them from underneath their
helmets, and generally acting as aggressively as I’ve seen police act
in this country. When the kids reach an intersection, they’re immediately
surrounded by police, all with their truncheons out, who get right up
next to them and start shouting at them to disperse.
When I get back to New York, there’s a lot of laundry to be done,
and I persuade the security guard in my building to let me in to the
laundry room despite the fact that it’s past 10pm and the room is meant
to be locked at that hour. While I’m in there folding t-shirts, a couple
of English guys from one of the ground-floor apartments come through
to have a cigarette in the courtyard. A minute or so later, the security
guard comes barrelling through the laundry room and orders them out
of the courtyard, telling them they’re not allowed there after hours.
A conversation then proceeds along the following lines:
English Guy 1: (inaudible)
Security Guard (aggressively): I wouldn’t advise that if I were
English Guy 2: Excuse me?
Security Guard: I’d advise you not to fuck with me, because I
can break your face.
English Guy 2: He was only saying that he wouldn’t want your job.
The security guard then watches the English guys leave, tells me to
get a move on with my laundry-folding, and also volunteers that people
ought to be careful what they say in such situations, because a misunderstanding
such as this one could easily have resulted in his fucking them up.
"I’m good at that," he says.
What all of these stories have in common is the shoot-first-ask-questions-later
attitude of the officials entrusted with ensuring our safety. In each
of the cases, the officers strutted their stuff, while the people they
were ostensibly protecting got intimidated, scared, and mistrustful
of their protectors’ goodwill and intentions.
It’s clear that in all of these cases, a less antagonistic approach
would have been more fruitful. Rather than whipping out a gun and screaming
at the passengers (many of whom thought they were being hijacked: the
air marshals were, after all, in plain clothes), a flight attendant
could simply have been asked to make an announcement over the intercom.
If a policeman were to have simply approached the kid at the front of
the protestors and asked him where they were headed, a relatively civilised
conversation would probably have ensued. And if the security guard in
my building had approached a couple of residents smoking in the courtyard
with less aggression, the chances of a "misunderstanding"
would have been greatly diminished.
The worst clashes at G7/IMF/WTO meetings have been in ill-prepared
cities where the police overreacted: Seattle, Turin. When Davos was
in New York, or the World Bank meets in Washington, the protestors invariably
get heard without significantly disrupting either the city or the meetings.
That was the case this year, too, despite the behaviour I witnessed:
I have a feeling that if the number of protestors had been greater,
the situation would have been escalated to someone with a cooler head.
In general, though, there are obvious dangers to leaving the job of
protecting airline passengers to "highly trained law enforcement
professionals" who have had
maybe two weeks’ training and who, on one occasion, managed to discharge
their weapon by mistake in the middle of a flight from Washington to
Las Vegas. For although even poorly-trained air marshals can help protect
passengers against hijackers, hijacking an airplane is probably the
last thing any potential terrorist would be planning right now.
In the meantime, overzealous marshals, policemen and security guards
only serve to make us ever more conscious of the terrorist threat. The
purpose of terrorism is to create widespread fear and nervousness; it
seems that those who would prevent it are having much the same effect.