Leaving aside momentarily the whole issue of me being a mavericky fugitive type for taking a photograph in the Underground*: the other day whilst waiting for the usual 3 or 4 minutes until the next train (I love this town!) I spied this particularly unctuous poster, which I hadn’t seen before.
For the benefit of those with dodgy eyesight, the text reads “These chemicals won’t be used in a bomb because a neighbour reported the dumped containers to the Anti-Terrorist hotline”. There was a companion to this further up the platform, but I couldn’t get my snap taken before the train trundled up, and it hardly seemed appropriate to be late for work in order to gather blog material…
For starters my incredibly flexible and delicate hackles tend to raise at any campaign which I perceive as praising a group of people for being smug busybodies (he says, referring specifically to the Together For London campaign – which seems specifically designed to reassure intolerant wazzocks who don’t have strong enough convictions to actually say something to the person who’s upsetting them so much that they’re in the right – by and large most of the behaviours “targetted” by that campaign are more irritating than inconveniencing, and as easily as getting irritated about something one could easily choose not to get irritated, thus saving everyone stress).
Ever keen to know what it is I’m supposed to be perpetually afraid of, I popped along to the website for the Anti-Terrorist Hotline, and was relieved to see that the police have given some nice clear guidelines as to the sort of thing we ought to be vigilant about:
- Terrorists live within our communities and blend in. However, behind closed doors they may be storing bomb making materials or meeting others to plan attacks. Are you suspicious of a property where there is unusual activity or strange comings and goings that don’t fit day-to-day life?
- Terrorists use surveillance to help plan attacks. Have you seen anyone taking pictures or filming CCTV cameras or making notes about other security arrangements? Has it made you suspicious? If you have seen this or know someone who takes an unusual interest in security measures, we need to know.
- Terrorists need communication. They communicate with others to plan meetings or buy materials and chemicals. To avoid possible detection they use multiple anonymous pay-as-you go mobile phones and swap SIM cards and handsets. If you are suspicious about someone who uses phones in this way, we need to know.
- Van – Terrorists need transport. If you work in commercial vehicle hire or sales, has a sale or rental made you suspicious?
- Passport – Terrorists use multiple identities. Do you know someone with documents in different names for no obvious reason?
- Mobile phone – Terrorists need communication. Anonymous, pay-as-you-go and stolen mobiles are typical. Have you seen someone with large quantities of mobile phones? Has it made you suspicious?
- Camera – Terrorists need information. Observation and surveillance help terrorists plan attacks. Have you seen anyone taking pictures of security arrangements?
- Chemicals – Do you know someone buying large or unusual quantities of chemicals for no obvious reason?
- Mask and goggles – Terrorists use protective equipment. Handling chemicals is dangerous. Maybe you’ve seen goggles or masks dumped somewhere.
- Credit card – Terrorists need funding. Cheque and credit card fraud are ways terrorists generate cash. Have you seen any suspicious transactions?
- Computer – Terrorists use computers. Do you know someone who visits terrorist-related websites?
- Suitcase – Terrorists need to travel. Meetings training and planning can take place anywhere. Do you know someone who travels but is vague about where they are going?
- Padlock – Terrorists need storage. Lock-ups, garages and sheds can all be used by terrorists to store equipment. Are you suspicious of anyone renting a commercial property?
So we only need to be suspicious about people who take photographs, use mobile phones, have access to vehicles, have passports, purchase or use chemicals on a reular basis, use credit cards, have computers, carry luggage, secure their properties, and of course, who have a different daily schedule to ourselves.
In other words, anybody may have something to hide, so WATCH OUT!
In NLP there is a linguistic model called the Meta Model, which describes how language can be tuned to nudge people into thinking certain things, and one of the tools is known as Presupposition. An example of this is when you ask a question with your desired outcome implicit as an effect, and merely give the respondent the illusion of choice. For instance, “Shall we meet at the pub at 7 or 8 tonight?” immediately presupposes that you are coming to the pub with me, and it’s only a matter of what time that has to be finalised. In fact, in order for you to not end up meeting me at the pub, your brain has to wrench a bit from trying to work out the best time to go to the pub, back across to thinking “Hang on, I’m not going to the pub tonight!”. Similarly, Led Zeppelin came under fire in the 80s by vocal Christian groups for having included satanic messages in their songs – the idea being that if you play sections of their songs backwards there are hidden messages which subconsciously influence people. The idea of hidden messages had already gained a foothold in peoples’ minds thanks to the “Paul is Dead” hysteria, so the presupposition here was that these songs must have such messages in them, and then it’s only a matter of looking for them. Here’s an example – play the following video with your eyes closed to listen to the section of “Stairway to Heaven” played forwards, and then backwards. See if you can spot what the Satanic message is. When it’s finished, do it again with your eyes open in order to see it.
The lyric is “If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now. It’s just a spring clean for the may queen. Yes there are two paths you can go by; but in the long run, there’s still time to change the road you’re on,”. The Satanic message is supposedly: “Here’s to my sweet Satan. The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is Satan. He’ll give those with him 666. There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.”.
What’s the relevance? TERRORISTS HAVE TOOLSHEDS! No, but seriously – every authoritative statement published that tells you how terrorists behave is based on the presupposition that our society is riddled with terrorists, and by making you be on constant vigilant lookout for them implicitly means you have to accept that they’re everywhere.
The trouble with having a confidential service to report potential terrorists and then giving such free-ranging criteria on what sort of thing you should report is that it is an obvious recipe for false positives – 2 anecdotal examples are:
- Singer & actor Henry Rollins visited Australia in 2006. He received a letter from a fan stating that she worked in a government anti-terrorist call centre, and he had been reported as a potential threat by a man sitting near him on his flight over. The reason for the suspicion was that Rollins had been reading a book entitled “Jihad” – a history of Central Asia, written by a Wall Street Journal, CNN & BBC contributor. As a result of some anonymous busybody, Rollins had been flagged on the Australian Government’s “persons of interest” list – purely based on having been reading something interesting and informative.
- West Indian jazz musician Victor Frederick (63) was incorrectly detained in Cardiff, strip searched, and had his house raided following an anonymous tipoff on his suspicious behaviour to a phone hotline. According to the news article, “police confiscated apparently suspicious items, which included a video of boxer Muhammad Ali and a ceramic urn containing a traditional West Indian drink”, and “police interpreted soundproofing equipment and wiring from his musical studio as a potential sign of illicit activity”.
An interesting reference to this is the wikipedia article “List of terrorism incidents in Great Britain“. Since Jan 1 2000 there are 11 listed incidents which went ahead. All of these were not stopped by police, however one was also listed in the “Prevented, failed or aborted attacks” section, and one attack was partially contained by a baggage handler working at the airport under attack. In the Prevented/failed/aborted list are 5 incidents since 2000 – 3 of which look to have failed due to ineptitude on the part of the assailants rather than any intelligence-based policing. In the “Arrests, detentions and other incidents related to the Terrorism Acts” section a further 17 events are listed – of those, 8 incidents resulted in suspects being released without charge, or cleared of wrongdoing in court, and one further one was wrongly shot dead by police. To total it up another way: of 33 listed incidents, 10 were stopped as a result of police intervention, 9 were false positives, 4 failed due to incompetence or being taken care of by members of the public, and the remaining 10 actually resulted in the terrorist plot being executed.
More than 50% false positives – when you consider that the goal of terrorist activity (although there’s still debate internationally on an agreed definition of the term) is to instill fear in a people and disrupt their ordinary way of life, one could argue that the mentality propogated by campaigns such as this is equally as effective, although agreeably less violent/fatal. In the campaign poster above, police are asking the public to suspect anyone who might be dumping chemical containers – not only potentially upsetting if you live near a dry cleaning shop, have mopped up a spot on your carpet, or have a darkroom… but also completely ineffective should the would-be bomb makers have had the foresight to purchase garbage bags in which to put their empty chemical containers.
Ultimately though what can be done? The only thing I can think of other than shrugging one’s shoulders, sighing, and saying “shit, eh?” is to embrace counter-initiatives like the photoshopping contest subsequently run on BoingBoing to remix the posters to send a more rational message – sending that sort of stuff around is the best protest I can think of for we, the powerless.
Oh wow, another tirade. Sorry folks. I promise I’ll get back to writing about What I Did On My Summer Vacation soon. You’ve all been very patient.
* I had always interpreted the instructions as “No flash photography” as it distracts the drivers – clearly the designs of the trains aren’t meant to be any sort of secret, as they run above ground half of the time.