Thursday, July 12, 2007

Musing: EuroTerror

Euroterror2Some of you -- my “Virtual Voyagers” -- have asked me recently about all the terrorist activity you have been hearing about in the United Kingdom. I thought I would put my thoughts into this Musing and share them with everybody. While most of my comments are based on observations in the UK, they also apply -- to a greater or lesser degree which I will try to describe -- to my recent experience in France .

As an overview, although “terror” is a constant topic in all forms of news media in the UK, it doesn’t seem to be a topic of daily conversation among the population. By and large, people seem to just go about their business, more or less unaffected by the constant implications of “threat.” When the subject does arise, people tend to deflect it with a variety of dismissive statements along the lines of “We live in scary times.”

If pressed on the issue -- which I have done only lightly for purposes of this Musing -- the response is pretty much what the media has promulgated: “The terrorists are not going to undermine our British way of life. We survived [the blitz, the war, etc.] and we’re going to get through this!” This may be the “stiff upper lip” stuff of Britain, but it is as good a way as any of not letting something you can’t do anything about ruin your daily life.

In France, I had less of a sense of terror in the media -- or in popular conversation -- but that may be because they had a bigger story going on (i.e. the national election) and/or because, frankly, I didn’t have a good enough grasp of the language to pick it up. My sense, though, is that the French are not as energized about terror as the Brits... At least not yet.

With that said, there are a few aspects of daily life in Britain that I think are worth pointing out and illustrating:

Euroterror3Surveillance: There are cameras simply everywhere in the UK. All along the highways, on virtually every street and intersection, at bus stops and train stations and in many restaurants, bars, hotels and even stores. Ostensibly used for other purposes such as traffic control, personal safety and theft deterrence, they are nevertheless all linked to central monitoring. This may explain why it is that every time you see a story about terror in the UK on your local media there is a plethora of video footage covering every movement of the suspects. They’ve got video everywhere and the amount of digital media they are amassing -- both useful and superfluous -- must be simply staggering.

Euroterror4Police: Only slightly less ubiquitous than surveillance cameras is the presence of police. Never traveling in numbers fewer than two -- and often in threes or fours -- the police are very visible. They are also very “proactive” and almost always seem to be in the process of questioning someone, checking IDs and/or searching belongings. I would not call the police presence “oppressive” or “alarming”, but I would put it at least in the category of “kinda creepy.” I can’t imagine what this police presence is costing -- or how much “good” it is doing -- but I’m sure it is a staggering amount of money and a huge drain on the public coffers.

Euroterror5Trash: That’s right, trash. This photo was actually taken in France where I was surprised to see such unattractive trash receptacles in -- let’s face it -- the land of style. I asked a “Virtual Voyage” who is -- believe it or not -- an expert in “site furnishings” like trash receptacles, and he informed me that the “plastic bag hanging on a ring” is an effort to keep terrorists from putting bombs in trash bins by making them transparent or, in the worst case, by reducing the amount of potential shrapnel which would be provided by traditional bins. Sadly, this made some sense to me, though I had some doubts about how much the transparency of the bag would prevent someone from putting a bomb in, say, a bag or box with no one the wiser. Obviously, the shrapnel reduction theory is the more applicable. This really hit home with me the other day when I had a cup of coffee in London’s busy Euston Station and -- despite a thorough search of the premises -- could not find a single trash receptacle in which to dispose of my empty cup. The number of trash bins in London’s busy public spaces: Zero, zip, zilch, nada, none. They’re gone. “Bomb in the bin” problem solved! The best you can do is hand your trash to the guy who walks around with a clear plastic bag picking up trash. This situation hasn’t taken hold in outlying or rural areas yet, but the trend is pretty clear.

Which brings me to the point of this Musing: Let’s face it, the UK has had to face and deal with terrorism far longer than the rest of the world, including the US. Well before “9/11”, the Brits were the target of all manner of bombs, etc. Although the means they have developed for dealing with terrorism are not guaranteed to be followed by other countries facing their own increased levels of terrorism, it is a pretty good bet that the UK will continue to be looked to for ideas, ways and means going forward. In the absence of some real “original thinking” on the part of the US, for example, I think Americans can expect to see the ubiquitous deployment of video cameras, a vast increase in the number of police and the disappearance of trash bins in public spaces among other trends. The British “stiff upper lip” may make them comfortable with -- or perhaps just resigned to -- these kinds of intrusions and inconveniences in their lives, but I’d like to think that folks in the US won’t accept them as readily or as well. Then again, because terrorism leverages on fear, mindlessness in response to it is rampant. Based on how mindlessly Americans have “gone along” with “Homeland Security” and all the other costs and intrusions of their government’s “War on Terror” I’m not very hopeful about seeing any “original thinking.” Which is too bad, really, because designing your security system based on the British model would be like designing your cars based on the Jaguar. Even my British friends will agree, it may look good but it’s very expensive, it doesn’t work very well and it certainly isn’t very reliable.

No comments: