Saturday, July 23, 2011

The true cost of the War on Terror is perception

Wednesday, October 10, 2001: almost one month to the day after 9/11, I found myself on an early morning United Airlines flight from San Francisco to New York.

The cavernous Boeing 767 was, inevitably, half-empty. Normally this would have been one of the busiest flights in North America - the first of the day from the West Coast's business capital to the East Coast's (hence the scheduling of a wide-bodied jet like the 767). The plane was so devoid of passengers I didn't just have the pick of the seats, I chose my row.

So much disappeared as a result of 9/11: American innocence and the naïveté that terror happened somewhere else, for starters. In its place crept an almost wartime return to the sinister suspicion that within our midst lurked people planning to do us harm.

I'll admit it: as I settled into my window seat, I was paying far more attention to my fellow passengers than I ever would have done before. Shameful as it was, I (and I'd challenge anyone else on that plane to deny they were doing the same) was profiling people as they boarded. Beards, olive skin, a lack of hand luggage - all and every irrational consideration flashed across my mind. 

On the return flight I was waiting at the gate at JFK. The flight was, again, half-empty. I'd already undergone an excessive security check, perhaps because I had a beard myself in those days, or possibly because I was wearing khaki cargo trousers. Who knows what criteria airport security was applying. It's just a pity they hadn't been more thorough a month earlier. 

Sat at the gate were two young Indian parents, accompanied by their two exasperating, hyperactive boys. The parents looked exhausted. They had clearly endured a long flight from India, and now they had five more hours in the air with their maddening children. My fellow passengers gave them a wide berth. Ridiculous. As it turns out, they slept soundly on the flight. I applauded their rare moment of tranquility.

Fast-forward to yesterday afternoon. Reports came through of an explosion in Oslo near to the Norwegian prime minister's office. Before long it was clear that a massive bomb had gone off. The scenes of devastation were reminiscent of the aftermath of the Bali attacks. Buildings around the canyon-like streets of Oslo's business district had been torn open, debris strewn everywhere.

Immediately the assumption was made: terror attack. Presidents and prime ministers gave instant comment about another terrorist tragedy. Without a shred of evidence to suggest it had anything to do with any affiliation, the suggestion was there: "No one has so far claimed responsibility," announced one so-called expert, "but Norway has been a part of the NATO force in Afghanistan." Right. I see. Obviously we know who did it. Banged to rights. In the 70s and 80s in Britain, all death and destruction was the fault of Irish terrorists until evidence proved otherwise. Now it's Islamic extremists.

As the impact of the massive Oslo bomb was being examimed by newsroom analysts devoid of any further material information, news emerged of a shooting incident on an island 50km from Oslo, where young members of Norway's ruling Labour Party had gathered for the Norwegian holiday weekend. Simultaneously the same thought occurred everywhere: Mumbai.

So how disappointed were we that these attacks hadn't been carried out by anyone with the racial traits that clearly mark one out as a terrorist? What was our collective surprise that the authorities detained a blond, blue-eyed 32-year-old farmer by the name of Anders Behring Breivik. Imagine our shock when it emerged  that the alleged perpetrator of what The Sun screamed NORWAY'S 9/11 turned out to be a right-wing crank with access to vast amounts of fertiliser. Norway's 9/11? Sounds more like Norway's Timothy McVeigh.

Perception can be a corrupting sense. Just as you don't spend your entire holiday on Sicily dodging Mafiosi, a visit to Israel doesn't require body armour. I know that now. I couldn't help being just a little apprehensive before my first trip to Israel last year. Another irrational trait shared with many who will never get to visit stunning parts of this world because of who, as well as what, they think they might encounter.

In the end, I loved Israel. The only downside is that I now have an Israeli stamp in my passport, apparenty making it difficult to fulfil my wish to visit Beirut. As we all know, Beirut is a war zone of West-hating evil. With fantastic restaurants, some of the best hotels in the Meditteranean, and the warmest, friendliest people you could ever wish to meet.

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