»  Taki's Magazine

December 1st, 2010

  The Pleasures of Travel

The great reactionary novelist Evelyn Waugh owned a country house in Combe Florey, southwest England. Among the furnishings was a set of three paintings under the collective title The Pleasures of Travel: 1751, 1851, 1951.

The first painting shows the interior of a stage coach carrying two men and four women. A masked highwayman has burst in and is waving a pistol at one of the men, who is handing over his pocket-watch. The four ladies are displaying various degrees of terror. The second male passenger, however, has surreptitiously drawn his own pistol, and we can reasonably suppose that the highwayman is in for an unpleasant surprise.

In the second picture we are in a Victorian railway carriage. A uniformed ticket inspector with a splendid beard is at the carriage window. One of the lady passengers seems to be showing her ticket. All is calm and civilized, the image of bourgeois gravity and harmony.

Both pictures were painted by the now-forgotten Victorian artist Robert Musgrave Joy. The third of Waugh's paintings was one he himself commissioned from Richard Eurich to complete the set. It shows the interior of a plane — an "aeroplane," Waugh would have said — just at the moment when some catastrophic failure has occurred.

Showing visitors round the house, Waugh would pause to let them take in the three paintings. Then he would point to the third one and exclaim with a gleeful chuckle: "They are all doomed!"

In fact 95 percent of plane crashes have survivors, and crashes are in any case extraordinarily rare. Your lifetime chance of dying in an auto accident is around one in a hundred: for a plane accident it's one in 20,000. Not only are planes an order of magnitude safer than cars, and at least a further order of magnitude safer than stage coaches (for the manifold horrors of which, see pages 169-176 of Paul Johnson's Birth of the Modern), they are probably safer than the railroads that Waugh was so nostalgic about. Remember the Tay Bridge disaster, or the conclusion of C.S. Lewis's Narnia tales.

Our imaginations of course care nothing for statistics. It is the vulnerability of a plane in flight that bothers us. If something dire happens six miles up in the air, then, as a Chinese friend expressed the common fear to me in the pithy way characteristic of his language: Suan wanle! — "You can reckon you're finished." That vulnerability is also irresistible to terrorists as a point of leverage. Quite a small bomb, even one small enough to conceal in a shoe or body cavity, can bring down a passenger plane, killing hundreds — more than 500 in the case of an Airbus. Such insane malignity is hard for a normal person to understand. There's no doubt it exists, though. What can we do about it?

Talking to people about this since 9/11, I've heard a number of common responses.

• Libertarian:  Government is just as hopeless at airline security as they are at anything else. Let airlines and citizens take care of matters. Allow passengers to carry firearms. There'd be thousands of armed citizens per terrorist.

This one was common in the year or so after 9/11, but you don't hear it any more. Beginning with the shoe bomber incident, it quickly became clear that if terrorists can no longer take over the cockpit of a plane, they'll be content just to blow the plane up. Having a hundred armed citizens in the cabin won't help, unless the terrorist is as incompetent as the shoe bomber, a thing that can't be depended on.

• Private enterprise:  All right, but let the airlines do it. Government is still hopeless.

It's an awful thing to say, given that government truly is hopeless at pretty much anything it tries to do, but it's not clear that in this case the airlines would do better.

For one thing there needs to be some reliance on national-security databases containing the kind of thing you don't want leaking out into the world at large. For another, here are the names of some airlines:  Air Astana (Kazakhstan), Air Zimbabwe, Angkor Air (Cambodia), Aviateca (Guatemala), Azerbaijan Airlines, … and I haven't even got through all the A's there.

• It's the Muslims, stupid:  Why are we pussyfooting around here? This is a problem of Muslim terrorists. Profile Muslims like crazy; or better yet, don't let them fly on planes in our air space.

I'm not unsympathetic to this line of argument. It has clearly been a mistake on the part of Western nations to allow large-scale settlement of foreign Muslims in our countries. Muslims have, after all, 57 countries of their own to roam around in — enough to suit any taste or need, I would have thought. After 9/11 it would have been entirely reasonable of the U.S.A. to bar any further entry to citizens of Muslim countries, and to ask those currently here to leave.

Unfortunately this doesn't meet the case, as I have pointed out previously in this space. And in the longer view, the kind of insane malignancy that today we associate exclusively with Muslim extremists can show up elsewhere. The Anarchist movement that plagued the Western world 100 years ago, and numbered a U.S. president among its victims, was a similar phenomenon. For all we know the Muslim menace might have subsided twenty years from now, and the Anarchist movement re-energized itself, or some unthought-of new lunatic cult come up. Nor is insane malignancy necessarily cultic. It can be an entirely private affair.

• The Israeli solution:  El Al, the Israeli national carrier, conducts skilful quick-fire interviews of passengers meeting certain profiles. Why not just do what they do?

Setting aside the fact that the sky would fall and the oceans boil if we were to do any kind of passenger profiling, there are matters of scale. El Al has 40 aircraft. Just the U.S.A.'s four largest carriers have over two thousand planes between them.

Nor is El Al's screening infallible. Richard Reid again: apparently he talked his way through it as a sort of jihadi final exam.

And then there is the delicate matter of employee standards. Possibly our Transportation Security Administration employs the kind of ingenious, quick-witted, superb verbalizers that the El Al interrogators must surely be. I've never yet met such a one, though, and I've racked up some Frequent Flyer miles. On a word-association test with "TSA employee," I don't think many of us would respond with "verbal agility" or "mind like a steel trap." This is federal employment; and — see above — it probably has to be. Federal employment has its own logic, which does not, in the TSA or anywhere, correspond very closely to the requirements of the real world. Oh, you've noticed that?

So what the heck do we do here? Just what we are doing, I suppose. And then — when some terrorist slips through anyway and we suffer what, in the morbid argot of Air Traffic Controllers, is I believe known as "an aluminum shower" — and then some.

Off with the shirt, kid; spread your legs wider, Ma'am. If Evelyn Waugh were still among us he'd be enjoying the spectacle mightily.