Wednesday, 23 March 2016

What Can We Do?

The Spectator has produced a good editorial on yesterday's Islamist bombings in Brussels.

My question, as ever, is "If we are at war, why don't we try to win it?"

During the Second World War, the fighting was not left to the soldiers. The entire citizenry of the UK, for example, was expected to contribute to the war effort in some way. The will to do this was easily aroused by the thought of a German invasion. (The Germans did, as a matter of fact, invade and occupy the Channel Islands.) 

When Canada went to war against the Taliban after 9/11, Canadian soldiers were mobilized, but the Canadian public was not. Although 9/11 woke me up to a serious new danger in the world, my life didn't change--except at the airport, of course. The reason we sometimes have to take off our shoes (and usually our boots) in the security line--or tread on a pad--is because of this man.  All the fuss with our toiletries is because of these people. But other than asking me to submit to airport procedures, Canada never asked me to do anything. Well, other than not take out my indignation on whichever random Muslims my eyes fell upon after hearing of the latest Islamist atrocity. 

The USA did make one attempt to enlist my aid against Islamism, however. As a graduate student in Boston, I received an email from the US government (passed along by the department) offering scholarships to students who would drop their current studies and learn one or more of several listed Asian languages, e.g. Dari, Farsi, Urdu, Arabic. It was open only to U.S. citizens, but I appreciated that the U.S. government was actively trying to recruit civilians to the national security effort. 

The US also has the "If you see something, say something" invitation, which as been trademarked. (Goodness!)   There must be something similar in the UK or Canada for when I saw a woman behaving very strangely at my gate at Toronto's Pearson Airport this month, "If you see something, say something" jumped to the forefront of my mind. 

What was she doing? Well, first of all, although it was evening and we were indoors, the woman was wearing sunglasses. It was uncomfortably warm in the lounge, but she was wearing a long, heavy, black coat and a fluffy tartan shawl. She was a thin and pale with every scrap of hair tucked into her beret, which was perched extended on her head like a mushroom. She was also pacing back and forth, grimacing to herself. I noticed her when I saw the people sitting across from me staring at her. 

Bloody hell, I thought. How weird. 

Since 9/11 I have flown quite a bit--across the Atlantic at least twice a year--and I don't remember anyone at the gate in dark glasses at night, let alone being quite so obviously nervous about something. The impulse not to say anything and just be tolerant of the crazy was strong. However, I was getting on a plane with the woman. Seven hours strapped into a tin can hurtling itself over the Atlantic with two hundred strangers, including Madame X--ugh. "If you see something, say something," repeated my brain. So I crept up to the young woman at the desk and said it. Naturally I began with "This is very embarrassing, but..."

And that was it. The young woman asked me to point out the person, I did, and then I sat down again, feeling mingled shame and satisfaction that I had done something. Of course, there was no guarantee that the airport employee would do anything besides sigh at the paranoia of middle-aged travellers. Therefore I asked myself why, since I had felt the need to point out the weirdness of Madame X, I was going to get on a plane with her anyway. My answer was that she reminded me more of eccentric female academics than of faith-based activists preparing to break the law (of whom I have known many--not that they possessed a particle of violence; it's the excited anticipation coupled with absolute confidence in the justice of one's cause that I'm thinking of). I could imagine her making an unpleasant fuss--and, to be honest, that was it.

In the end, she did not--to my knowledge--make an unpleasant fuss. And although there were a few minor fusses on the plane, thanks to a family trying to reorganize its seats,  the flight attendants were geniuses at resolving them. But I do not feel embarrassed because I had done the one thing the community seems to expect from its citizens when it comes to safety: I had said something.

Amusingly, I said something almost as soon as I landed, too. Some poor woman left her suitcase in a loo stall in a ladies' room at Glasgow airport. When I walked into the stall and saw it there, I shouted at once, "Is this anyone's bag?" Startled faces turned towards me, and I disappeared into another stall. When I emerged, the bag was gone, saving me the embarrassment of having to find an airport employee. 

The time for polite embarrassment--save as a tactic--is over. If there's something to say, we should just say it--aloud, in person,  to the people around, or to someone whose job it is to protect us. The primary (some say the only) justification for paying taxes to the state is that it provides protective services. If it ceases to provide protective services, what is the point of it?  This question is particular pertinent when, as in the UK, the state has a complete monopoly on protective services, and the private citizen is barely able to protect himself. As the European Union seems not only not to protect the borders of the UK, but even render them meaningless, many citizens and residents of the UK are preparing to vote to leave the EU. How effective this would be in ending Islamist attacks in the UK, however, is uncertain, as the UK has its own "home-grown" problem. 

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