The airport queue dilemma

Pierce Brosnan is too tall to play a British prime minister. Only American leaders carry those extra inches – which may be why we occasionally get into trouble for looking up to them.

It might also explain why Brosnan sleepwalks through the thinly disguised Tony Blair role in The Ghost, Roman Polanski’s film of the Robert Harris novel. The actor is content to invest his entire dramatic energy in a few sentences of Adam Lang’s final scene.

Hounded by both the International Criminal Court and a prying ghost writer of his memoirs, Lang unleashes his airport queue hypothesis, a prime ministerial version of the prisoner’s dilemma.

One queue is for flights subjected to security checks drawn up by human rights and civil liberty campaigners. The other queue is protected by every means devised by the unfettered powers of unscrupulous intelligence agencies…..

…then people can make up their own minds which plane they want to catch. Wouldn’t that be great? To sit and watch which queue the (bleeding heart liberals) of this world would put their kids on.”

The self pity that lies behind this outburst deserves little sympathy. Politicians are there to knock the rough edges off differing viewpoints, not to resharpen them.

Nonetheless, the attempted bombing of Times Square in New York this week has been a painful reminder of how sensitive this particular balancing act can be.

It is remarkable how many ingredients of the airport queue dilemma have been stirred up in the apprehension of Faisal Shahzad, appropriately on an aircraft.

If journalists’ reconstructions of the investigation are to be believed, the FBI would not have foiled Shahzad’s escape without the tracking and recording services of a mobile phone company, the disclosure of identity by an email service provider, not to speak of extensive footage of surveillance cameras located in public spaces.

Each of these resources has been the subject of difficult questions about potential abuse of personal privacy. The pursuit of Shahzad also invoked the “no fly” list, a controversial counter-terrorism measure prompted by 9/11, which can be labelled as a common sense precaution or an arbitrary restraint of freedom, depending on your point of view.

If these various tensions are insufficient to unsettle the composure of President Obama’s legal training, then he will surely be tested by calls of senior US politicians, led by John McCain, to abandon a structural plank of US citizenship. They are unhappy that Shahzad was granted his “Miranda” rights, the right to silence and support of a lawyer when charged with a crime.

Here at OneWorld we will of course continue to stand firmly behind campaigns for personal freedoms and to oppose governments that seek inappropriate powers in the name of security.

However, I’ve become a little more wary of those principled pleas for liberty which are not grounded in reality. Like it or not, people have developed a lower appetite for risk in their daily lives.

There’s little point in advocating that Britain should remove some of its public surveillance cameras if public opinion is likely to compel their reinstatement in reaction to the next serious crime of terror or child abuse.

Is it tempting fate to suggest that the incidence of terrorist atrocities in Europe and North America has been less than feared in the wake of the London and Madrid attacks five years ago? Which components of counter-terrorism strategies might be regarded as most effective?

An honest search for answers to these questions might enrich the support for campaigns that seek to limit the boundaries of state control over our lives.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK