There's an earnest, high-school debating tone to the ubiquitous discussions of airport security. It has many worthy subjects like, Full body scanners: Will they work? High moral concerns such as The invasion of privacy. There's Human rights versus racial profiling, which would be a better topic if it hadn't already been a reality for males of a certain age and hue since 9/11. There's room for witty replies, like Billy Connolly's, who'd like to say, when asked if he packed his own bags: "No, no, a big Arab guy in a hotel - a nice big man, named Mohammed, who had a flying licence - packed it for me."
Now add Yemen. The underwear bomber got fitted there. People who couldn't spell it the day before yesterday worry about it. Doesn't Yemen make the airport debate even more urgent? No, it makes it more irrelevant. A mom at her kid's karate class this week said: "They keep applying Band-Aids, but it doesn't stop the bleeding." Yes! All the security babble amounts to evading the key issue: why this continues and how to reverse the trend line. But that requires talking foreign policy, not airport screening.
This is what's so irritating: The security issue seems to drain scarce public discourse resources from that other topic, foreign policy. You'd think both could be talked about at once but apparently not. We hear more on security and less on the sources of the problem. Why are they angry in Yemen? Because U.S. drones invaded their space and menaced innocent people, once in 2002 and again (shhh, it's supposed to be secret) last month. They didn't like the 2003 invasion of Iraq either. The first attack on the U.S. embassy in Yemen came right after that, long before the one planned recently.
It's not an obscure subject. The U.S.'s 9/11 commission said chief planner Khalid Shaikh Mohammed was motivated by American Mideast policy. Osama bin Laden said he reached his decision to strike the U.S. while watching its ships bombard Beirut in 1983. The supply of terror will remain endless if you keep replenishing it with invasion, war and other such policies.
This hostile reaction isn't inherently religious, although it may go in that direction. Iraq was a secular Muslim country before the 2003 U.S. invasion. The same dynamic applies to "homegrown terror threats." France is about to ban the burka, which is worn, according to report in this paper, by just 367 women in the whole land. If I were a young, secular Muslim woman there, I'd be tempted to put one on. As Paul Scott wrote in The Raj Quartet, "Hit a man in the face long enough and he turns to his racial memory and his tribal gods."
But instead of this discussion on policies, we get ever more reports and debates about air travel. This week, Transport Minister John Baird, recommending another batch of screening techniques, said, "The reality of our generation is the fact we have to deal with terrorism." Would that he'd felt as urgently about global warming when he was environment minister. It amounts to the old Cold War dualism in shabbier garb. At least the commie menace had an ideology that could be identified. The war against terror is so vague it can't be defined, and therefore may never end.
The sane approach would be to deal with the problem by dismantling and rebuilding Western policy toward the Muslim world. Well, that's unlikely. Why? Partly due to vested interests: oil companies, arms-makers, body-scanner builders. But it seems to go deeper, as if there's a human need for a permanent enemy to explain why your life didn't go quite right or your heroes didn't pan out or whatever woke you up in the middle of last night.
And if it did happen, would some people miss their fears? Probably. You might need a parallel campaign to persuade them to live without deep, irrational enemies: a sort of war on fear, to replace the war on terror.