I arrived in New Zealand on 13th March this year ready to deliver a training course based on behavioural analysis techniques. As the aircraft made its final approach, I once again considered how I was going to persuade course delegates that the possibility of a serious attack in New Zealand was to be taken seriously and that geographical location was no defence from those whose hearts were filled with hatred or whose minds were awash with desperate thoughts. Less than two days later, 50 innocent individuals had their lives cut short in two mosques in Christchurch as a result of the actions of one depraved individual who not only wanted to kill but also sought to turn it into an international spectacle by livestreaming his massacre on the internet.
I wish I could say that I was surprised. Horrified yes, but not surprised. Across the globe, we are witnessing similar acts of xenophobia-fuelled terrorism. Perhaps not on the same scale, but the mindset is often the same. And this was a terrorist attack. Any attempt to downplay it and reserve the term ‘terrorism’ almost exclusively for Islamist attacks perpetrated by radicalised individuals also smacks of more than a degree of xenophobia. The Christchurch attacker, whose name New Zealand’s prime minister has elected never to utter, had a political ideology. White supremacists of his ilk are growing in numbers and we need to wake-up to the plague they bring to civilised society.
It is perhaps strange that the two most deadly supremacist attacks of recent years have occurred in countries with relatively small populations at either end of the globe – Christchurch, New Zealand and, in the case of Anders Behring Breivik, in Oslo and Utøya, Norway. Then again, perhaps it is that sense of complacency that allows perpetrators to operate in such locales beneath the radar. That being the case, we need to revisit our concepts of high-risk environments. For airlines, there are no high-risk routes if one considers all the threats to which we are exposed.
“…50 innocent individuals had their lives cut short in two mosques in Christchurch as a result of the actions of one depraved individual…”
Those who have heard me speak at conferences will be familiar with my appeal to the aviation security community to view its remit as going well beyond that of traditional terrorism. But there is huge resistance. There is probably no single reason for this, but I think that our being accustomed to facing the threat of terrorist attacks perpetrated by members of the Muslim faith – both recently in terms of AQ or IS-inspired jihadist attacks and earlier in the form of the Palestinian nationalist hijackings and bombings of the last century – has become the rationale for the war we choose to fight. Don’t get me wrong, that threat has not diminished. The recent collapse of the so-called caliphate and the migration – sometimes homeward-bound – of the defeated foreign fighters poses a terrifying threat given that it was an army rather than an ideology that was defeated. And we would be wrong, therefore, not to consider some locations being more exposed to that threat than others. But we must open our eyes to the xenophobia that exists, both as a result of the fundamentalist attacks and more generally as a result of demographic change inspired by climate change, economic migration and media messaging.
It has become so much easier to hate. I have never been a big user of Twitter but I admit that I have, due to the Brexit debate, found myself following some of the musings of a handful of politicians (including @ZacGoldsmith and @lucianaberger), relatives of renowned politicians (such as @Emily_Benn), journalists (including @freedland and @maitlis), comedians (@JKCorden and, of course, @Baddiel) and aviation security professionals, alongside those academics who effect research in the behavioural analysis field. With a couple of exceptions, it’s not the comments of those I follow that trouble me, rather the responses they receive to their comments and the diatribe in the threads that they follow. I am shocked and saddened to see the vile, disrespectful, racist, anti-Semitic, obscene messages that are expressed by people who are active in local government and who represent supposedly charitable organisations. Disagreement over political issues is no longer a debate – it’s a blinkered, cowardly, foul-mouthed volley of hatred. I’m right. You’re wrong. A forum where we can use language that is unacceptable on the airwaves or in person. I find myself loathing the scum who, hidden away in the comfort of their homes, and often more blatantly, launch personal attacks with complete disregard for the emotional impact that they might be having on others.
What is happening in the United Kingdom is a tragedy, whichever side of the Brexit debate one stands on. We are witnessing a divided society where compromise seems to have little place, respect for the opinion of others has gone out the window and xenophobia reigns supreme. But you don’t have to be British. Across Europe, extreme political agendas are being promulgated and, in the US, the political landscape has never been so polarised and disrespectful of differing opinions.
This all creates a dangerous cocktail where extremism, and even fascism, flourishes and, to a certain extent, is tolerated. Crackdown on livestreaming? No way, that interferes with my rights. Abolish the right to bear arms? How am I to defend myself and my family (without my assault rifle!)? Anti-Semitism becomes mixed up with anti-Zionism. Islamophobia becomes justified. Global village – dream on!
Of course, we are not seeing aircraft being hijacked or blown out of the skies by white supremacists, so it is easy to turn a blind eye. But we are seeing hate crimes perpetrated at our airports, an escalation in the number of serious inflight unruly passenger incidents, an increase in the number of suicides at airports and a litany of insider criminal acts being prosecuted in the courts. In the last two months, we have had at least one act of aircraft-assisted suicide and three hijackings.
We must, of course, avoid knee-jerk responses to incidents such as Christchurch. The threat today is probably no higher than it was on 14th March. True, there could be copycat attacks by emboldened supremacists and yes there could be revenge attacks from the extremes of the Muslim community, but the fact is that we knew before the Christchurch attack that the city was home to the more right-wing elements of New Zealand society. We knew then and know now that there are also those with severe mental health problems who could elect to go out in a blaze of ‘glory’. We saw that with Stephen Paddock in Las Vegas. So, we need to build capabilities into our aviation security system to highlight these people.
“…vile, disrespectful, racist, anti-Semitic, obscene messages that are expressed by people who are active in local government and who represent supposedly charitable organisations…”
This is not about focussing on the person who is perspiring excessively or is seemingly very nervous (of course we should, whilst recognising that there are an abundance of reasons for people to be stressed at airports), but rather to encourage staff to use their senses and identify the change in behaviour of fellow employees, recognise an increased in troubling social media transactions and report concerns about colleagues’ well-being.
There is an argument to suggest that employees’ political affiliations are their own business and nobody else’s. But when the out-of-work rhetoric impacts the mood of those around them and can engender bigoted responses, turning the other cheek may not always be the appropriate response.