[There are, of course, many things in this world to get upset about. China and Pakistan are currently suffering vast human tragedies, caused by natural disasters. When I've finished writing this blog, I will donate something to www.dec.org.uk, in the hope that it helps. All the same, I'm still angry.]
I'm feeling angry about a radio advertisement.You can read the news story it's generated here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/aug/11/asa-anti-terror-hotline-advert and here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-10929203
In short, it's a public information broadcast, that has been playing on the popular radio channel 'Talk Sport':
"The following message is brought to you by Talk Sport and the Anti-Terrorist Hotline. The man at the end of the street doesn't talk to his neighbours much, because he likes to keep himself to himself. He pays with cash because he doesn't have a bank card, and he keeps his curtains closed because his house is on a bus route. This may mean nothing, but together it could all add up to you having suspicions. We all have a role to play in combating terrorism. If you see anything suspicious, call the confidential, Anti-Terrorist Hotline ... if you suspect it, report it."
The Advertising Standard Authority have banned this advert, but they have allowed the following advert to go ahead:
"The man two desks down from you at work looks at online aerial photos, because he’s thinking of moving house, he rents three lock-ups, full of his mother's things he just can't throw out, he paid for a flight with cash, but that's because he's a spontaneous kind of guy. This may mean nothing, but together it could all add up to you having suspicions ..."
Ok, full marks to the ASA for banning the first advert. They had complaints. Good. Thank God for that. The second one is obviously detailing much more suspicious behaviour; and it is much more reasonable.
Except, of course, it isn't.
Ever looked at aerial photos at work? I sometimes look at Google Maps because, well, frankly, it's just quite cool to see London from the air, isn't it?
Have a lock-up? No, not personally. My next-door neighbour does, though. I wonder if she ever looks at aerial-photos? Why three lock-ups? Would two of them be ok?
Ever paid for things in cash? Not often, but my dad used to pay for everything in cash. He owned a cash-based business and mistrusted computers. Fortunately, he doesn't have a lock-up, so he's safe. And he's my dad.
So that's ok then, right?
No, it's not.
In fact, if you look at the Met Police site, you'll see that some if their 'spot a terrorist' things are quite reasonable ... weird purchases of chemicals in bulk etc. Some, however, are quite barmy:
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?
Now, I suspect a significant proportion of the married men in this country are vague about their 'business trips'. But - I've got news for you, MI5 - they're not visiting that seedy motel on the A1 with Keisha from Accounts to ferment global terror.
You might argue, of course, that I'm being frivolous here. We have been bombed and attacked, after all. None of these individual things are sufficient grounds for 'suspicion', but the public must use its judgment. The Anti-Terrorist Hotline is there to provide clues and hints for the interested and vigilant member of civil society, no?
I disagree. I think we have a security service that is paid to track terrorism; that the clear and tangible signs of someone being a terrorist (if such signs do exist) are the ones that can be traced - frequent visits to extremist websites; frequent, unusual or large purchases of chemicals; contacts with known terrorists. All these things might be grounds for suspicion. Anything else, the 'vigilance' demanded of the public, is both impossible to comply with, and highly corrosive, generating an atmosphere of fear and distrust.
If I took all the advice above, and applied it to my neighbours, I'd guess that 50% of Hackney would be 'suspicious' - should I get on the phone immediately?
Some will argue that those adverts - adverts which encourage me to spy on my neighbours, to constantly view normal examples of behavior through a lens of suspicion - are justified if one terrorist is caught. I'm not convinced by that. I can understand why a policeman or member of the security services might view people that way; but that's their job.
I don't want to spy for the state; and I don't want my neighbours to spy on me. Not because I have anything to hide; not because I have entrenched political views; but because I want to live in a society where I am not fearful of everyone and everything.
If the people who put together these adverts can't understand that - if they can't understand the consequences of fermenting such suspicion among everyone in our society - if we have to rely on the Advertising Standards Agency to safeguard us against collective paranoia - then we are lost.