Learn to fear

Fear...In the world today, there is a threat that hides in plain sight. It is already killing hundreds of thousands of people ever year – and yet it is not discussed. Our leaders and our authorities do almost nothing to protect us.

I am referring to dihydrogen monoxide – and this is not a joke.

This year alone an especially violent and contaminated form of DHMO has killed countless thousands in Japan following the devastating 9.9-magnitude earthquake in March, and yet this fact is barely known. Before the end of the year, DHMO will kill children, pets, mothers, the elderly – even those in the prime of life.

Dihydrogen monoxide is a compound made of two of the most reactive and explosive chemicals in the world – hydrogen and oxygen. These are the chemicals that fuel rocket ships; hydrogen is the gas that filled the Hindenburg, and caused it to explode so catastrophically.

The threat from DHMO is overwhelming – so why is so little known about it, and so little being done?

Our governments tell us that there are higher priorities in our societies when it comes to protecting us – especially, perhaps, terrorism. And yet DHMO is – and will continue to be – many hundreds of times more deadly than terrorist activities.

Why is this allowed, then? Why is there no outcry? Why is DHMO routinely added to foods – even given out to children in schools? How on earth can this be allowed?

The answer is very simple – dihydrogen monoxide is more commonly known by its chemical formula: H2O. It is even more commonly known by another name: water.

“Oho,” you say to yourselves, “look at Eliot being all smart-arsey. Yes, yes, very good – water is very deadly. But come on – it’s not the same as terrorism.”

No, it isn’t the same as terrorism. For a start, the risk from water is actually real and significant.

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The terrorists have won – and so have the politicians

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve just been working my way through the Adam Curtis documentary The Power Of Nightmares – and it has left me newly pissed-off about the state of the world.

The three-part series, broadcast on the BBC in 2004, is (in my view) an excellent, entertaining and ultimately rather upsetting look at “the rise of the politics of fear”, to quote its tagline. It confirmed a lot of what I’ve been thinking about for the last few years, painting an interesting thesis of a world in which the unjustified fears of a small minority have resulted in the situation we have today, where a perceived “terrorist threat” impacts on almost every aspect of our lives.

(All three parts are linked from the other post – if you haven’t watched it, I heartily recommend it. Despite being seven years old, it has taken on new relevance following the Arab Spring and the death of Osama Bin Laden.)

One central idea of TPON is this: for a variety of reasons, Western politicians have created a threat in their imaginations, in the shape of international Islamist terrorism on a grand scale.

They have also imagined a role for themselves as society’s protectors – and the greater the threat, the more important this role is. Thus, by imagining the threat greater still, the politicians make themselves even more important.

It would be indefensible to argue that there is no terrorist threat, but as Curtis explains – and others have said for a long time – the idea of a coherent “network” of Islamist terror is a convenient fiction.

Al Qaeda has always been a flag of opportunity: you have a good idea on how to kill a lot of people, you get a message out to Big Daddy OBL, and he gives you a pat on the back, some greenbacks if you’re lucky – and a promise to claim it as a victory after you’ve blown yourself up. It’s a win-win – for the terrorists. And the reality is, this terrorism is largely opportunistic and dispersed.

But so great is our fear – the fear politicians have helped us cultivate – that we have grown to accept what has been described as the “paradigm of prevention”. A quote included in TPON from John Ashcroft, US Attorney General under George W Bush, is very telling:

We had to make a shift in the way we thought about things. So being reactive, waiting for a crime to be committed, or waiting for there to be evidence of the commission of a crime didn’t seem to us to be an appropriate way to protect the American people.

Translated, this means: “We’re going to start locking people up, based on what we think they might do, rather than what they’ve actually done.”

And this is what they did – in the US, the UK and elsewhere.

It’s tempting to see this as the Orwellian concept of “thought crime” made flesh – but it’s actually rather worse, in that the “thoughts” in question only had to reside in the minds of the accusers for one to be detained indefinitely.

And the best part – there is no defence, because these people are only being detained on what they might do. If there were actual evidence of plotting, then these detainees could have been tried on charges of conspiracy – but it looks like that didn’t happen too often.

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Making it worse

Gate rapeSo, yes, the governments in the West, and in lots of other places too, went all-out on this “preventative” strategy – removing the terrorist threat before it actually got to do much threatening.

But by placing such emphasis on this, by turning Islamist terrorism into the ultimate bogeyman, governments have managed to promote the terrorists’ own cause beyond their wildest dreams. Their story, their agendas, are in policy speeches from the heart of power, in every media outlet, on the lips of every member of society.

And just as when a school shooting happens, the media glorification of the act goes on to inspire others. Feeling lonely and isolated, misunderstood and bullied at school? Hey, here’s a great way to get your own back, to get people to notice you. All you need to do is get a gun…

Feeling frustrated at society? Feeling isolated, and looking for a way to lash out? Hey, here’s Islamist terrorism, and it’s the sworn enemy of the West. We’ll help you show them you mean business. All you need is this bomb…

By glorifying terrorism, we promote it. By “preventing” terrorism through locking up people guilty of no crime, we fuel the dissatisfaction and fear that can convert people into terrorists. By allowing fear of terrorism to rule our lives, we have allowed terrorism to succeed in its core aim: we are literally terrified.

Is it just me, or is all of this COMPLETELY FUCKED UP?

The truth is that the countless billions or trillions of dollars that have been spent on “The War On Terror” are completely out of proportion to the real threat, and often focus more on fiction than reality. Worse, this spending has probably increased the threat, rather than reducing it.

And to put a cherry on the top of this steaming pile of crap, those billions don’t even work very well.

In December 2001, with airports on massively high alert, the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid made it on to several flights with his explosive footwear, before trying to detonate it on a flight from Paris to Miami. He was only thwarted by the explosives being too damp to explode, and was subdued by passengers on the plane – not the authorities.

Eight years later, at the same time of year, using the same type of explosives, on a similar route to the US (Amsterdam to Detroit), Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab also tried to blow up his flight, this time with the bomb in his underpants.

Again, he went through airport security undetected – despite using virtually the same MO as Reid had almost a decade earlier. Again, passengers took him down – not air marshals, not transport security, not police or special forces.

So what the HELL is the point of all those billions, if they can’t even stop a copycat attack, both attempted by men who, not to put too fine a point on it, do not seem to be the sharpest swords in the armoury. Abdulmutallab’s own father even tried to warn the US intelligence services about his son, fearing he was planning an attack – but he was ignored.

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Learn to be free

We are in a situation where many of our lives have been materially worsened by efforts to prevent terrorism. A significant number have lost their freedom because of this – many others in Muslim or even just Asian communities in the West have lost the tolerance of their neighbours. A few have lost their lives.

The rest of us just have to put up with our communications being monitored, our movements being tracked, our travel disrupted and our freedoms squeezed. Truly we are lucky.

So, I ask again – why are we spending all this money to make life worse, when we can’t even eliminate the threat?

Why aren’t we spending it on water-death-prevention: life guards at every lake and pond and river and stretch of coast, life vests under every park bench, cameras in every bathtub, safety rails on every potentially slippery surface?

It would cost the same or less, and would save more lives. It probably wouldn’t have as negative an impact as the current anti-terror measures do.

Terrorism is a reality – it has been forever. Modern terrorists have the benefit of high explosives and bullets, so they tend to be more effective than their idiot brethren from previous decades and centuries.

There will always be a chance that I could die from a terrorist attack. But there are much better odds that I will die from something else – my poor lifestyle choices, a car accident, mechanical failure on a plane, random disease, a freak accident. I might even drown.

It is not possible to live in a world with zero risk, but we can learn to manage that risk effectively, and avoid it where possible – provided the measures to avoid it are in proportion to the actual risk.

Part of this means rejecting the current climate of paranoid, out-of-proportion fear and avoidance that currently permeates many societies. This means voicing one’s lack of support for overly-draconian measures, and refusing to vote for or support those who attempt to play on this fear.

As part of this process, we also need to learn to fear – learn to fear properly, learn to fear in proportion to reality. And once we have learnt to fear properly, then – then we can learn to be free again.

And if I get blown up by a terrorist tomorrow – so be it; there’s worse ways to go. I bet I won’t, though.

One Comment:

  1. Good post.

    And don’t get me started on the perceived dangers of Nuclear power…

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