Men in uniform

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.

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