Hysteria, conspiracy and blame – the politics of air disasters
By : Chris Doyle
If, as it now increasingly appears, a bomb took down the Russian airliner over Sinai, serious steps must be taken at a security, political and economic level. Overreaction is almost just as dangerous as doing nothing.
If this was ISIS as they claim, we must remember that as much as it might be for revenge, it is also to provoke a reaction. All such attacks have that in mind. A well thought out and effective strategic response is the way forward, not division, blame and hysteria.
At the security level, the attacks are designed to make air travel as expensive and frightening as possible. The public is disproportionately scared of being killed in planes. How come? If you examine the fatality statistics road deaths in the Middle East people would never get in a car. When taking Members of Parliament to Gaza before the Sinai insurgency, to answer troubled queries about security, I would tell them that probably the biggest threat to life and limb would not be from any conflict but from driving from Cairo to Rafah. The WHO estimates that around 1.24 million people die a year on the world’s roads, the main cause of death for young people between 15 and 29. 2014 was the worst year for aviation in the last five years with 904 deaths up from 173 the year before. It has been claimed that an additional 1500 people died after 9/11 because they chose to drive not fly. Despite everything plane travel is still far, far safer and if the issue is to prevent deaths, we should be investing more in road safety and not giving up on air travel quite yet. Moreover American and European safety and security standards have massively improved not least since the last plane to be brought down by a bomb, Pan Am 103 in 1988.
A suspicious bunch
That said, airport and flight security can certainly be improved in many areas of the world. Three years ago I flew out of Baghdad airport, perhaps then and even now one of the most at risk airports on the planet, a fact reinforced by the remorseless series checkpoints you endure en route. The scanning of individuals inside the airport was, putting it diplomatically, very poor. Neither my travelling companions nor myself were properly scanned. My jacket including mobile phone and tablet did not pass through a scanner nor did those of a former British Ambassador or an Anglican priest. A more suspicious bunch it is hard to imagine. On touching down in Amman I tweeted this to the company responsible, G4S. To their credit, I received a call in minutes and they carried out an investigation. On another occasion 15 years ago, I was left to my own devices, wandering around the secure area in Damascus airport looking for lost luggage.
If this was ISIS as they claim, we must remember that as much as it might be for revenge, it is also to provoke a reaction
Planes have for decades been an attractive target for extremists ever since the first civilian plane was destroyed in 1933. There was a previous attack on two Russian planes in 2004 by two female Chechen suicide bombers. In the sick world of political extremism blowing up planes is publicity gold. ISIS was handing out candies after the Metrojet crash in Egypt.
Politically, the reaction of the powers involved has been a gift to the extremists. The UK, Russia and Egypt have all been at loggerheads. The British Prime Minister was right to stop flights to Sharm El Sheikh yet Russia and Egypt were both scathing, clearly concerned they might be held responsible. Yet 24 hours after accusing David Cameron of pre-empting the outcome of the investigation into the plane’s crash, Russia too was bringing home its tourists. I was interviewed on one show where some rather childish Russian pundit was boasting that even more Russians were flying to Egypt after the crash and that if British tourists were scared that was their problem.
All parties should depoliticize the situation and refrain from this blame game culture. Passengers must come first and by so doing confidence will return and tourism can pick up again.
Conspiracy theories proliferate and are also deeply unhelpful and typically ridiculous. One Russian commentator accused the British security services MI6 of carrying it out. Mossad was accused by another convinced this was payback after Russians had taken out Jewish oligarchs in Ukraine.
For Egypt, the first rule must be to be honest and face up to any errors not pass the blame. There are huge areas of concern over the situation over Sharm El Sheikh. Even if there was no bomb loaded on the cargo hold in Sharm El Sheikh, it still does not take away from the fact airport security there was shocking. Tourists and journalists testify to this, not least the ability to bribe one’s way past the screening. Reports suggest CCTV cameras were not properly monitored. In some hotels they were using dummy bomb detectors.
Standards should never be relaxed and security cannot take time off. Proper security should work on a one mistake and you are out basis. This is a painful lesson for Egypt to learn, but if there is to be any return of tourist confidence, it is vital. Other countries and airlines must find ways of upping their standards.
Questions should also be asked of the airlines flying into places like Sharm El Sheikh. They could not have been ignorant of the security limitations, so did they raise this with the authorities or do nothing just to keep the route open?
Other countries are far from being in the clear, this is not just about Egypt. The major finding of the inquiry into the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 was baggage should always be matched. How often do we travel to find out baggage comes along on another flight. It has happened to me twice in the last twelve months.
Sadly, politics has polluted the whole issue when politics should be pushed aside. If it was a bomb, the prime responsibility must remain with the perpetrators. If ISIS carried this out, then other than additional security measures for flights, there are the same political and military challenges as there were on 30 October. ISIS is a threat regardless but to defeat a proper joined up, united coordinated strategy is required that focuses on resolving the conflicts where ISIS and al-Qaeda flourish.
The reactions to the downing of Flight 9268 does not give reason to believe we are any way closer to that.
Chris Doyle is the director of CAABU (the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding). He has worked with the Council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. As the lead spokesperson for Caabu and as an acknowledged expert on the region, Chris is a frequent commentator on TV and Radio, having given over 148 interviews on the Arab world in in 2012 alone. He gives numerous talks around the country on issues such as the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Islamophobia and the Arabs in Britain. He has had numerous articles and letters published in the British and international media. He has travelled to nearly every country in the Middle East. He has organized and accompanied numerous British Parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Most recently he took Parliamentary delegations to the West Bank in April, November, December 2013 and January 2014 including with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw.
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