It had been announced that the troops were leaving Heathrow; the withdrawal seemed to be complete by the time I arrived on Tuesday evening. There wasn’t a machine-gun to be seen all the way from the train platform to the departure gate. My initial response was disappointment. There’s something boyishly thrilling about the idea of tanks at airports – or rather, there is if you live somewhere like England, from where such things as coups and invasions seem so very remote. The sense of unreality is only exacerbated by ignorance of the threat. Who were the Army there to defend against what? And what was it that changed to make their presence there all of a sudden unnecessary?
Did the arrests of the ricin manufacturers in Wood Green, or the suspicious characters lurking under the flightpath near Slough, or the man travelling on a British Airways flight from Caracas to LGW with a ‘live’ hand grenade in his luggage mean we were safe again, at least for the time being? It was first reported and then denied that this presumed evil-doer had also carried a copy of the Koran, of the good book which is, it so happens, one of the lead titles in the relaunched, new-look Penguin Classics. I thought for a moment about taking the LRB’s review copy to read on the plane. But only for a moment. How long will it be before they start to ask at check-in: ‘Did you pack your bags yourself? Are you carrying any sharp objects in your cabin luggage? Nail-scissors? Razor-blades? A copy of the Koran?’
Setting off the alarm at the security check, I was searched much more thoroughly than I’d ever been before. The official had a good look at the soles of my shoes, to make sure that I wasn’t doing a Richard Reid, planning to detonate the semtex I was walking on at 35,000 feet. We had a meal as we waited for our flight to be called, eating with plastic cutlery. I could almost hear the conscientious click of stable-doors being closed on empty stalls.
Perhaps the situation is too serious to joke about; perhaps it’s too serious not to joke about. The Government says an al-Qaida attack in the UK is inevitable. It is therefore also unforeseeable; it will necessarily be unanticipated in both senses. As will another attack on the US. No one’s life will be saved by duct tape and plastic sheeting: hoarding them is not so much preparation for any likely attack as a material response to abstract anxiety.
The deployment of the Armed Forces at Heathrow – and even more so perhaps their withdrawal – along with the other, highly visible extra security precautions are meant, I take it, to be reassuring. But to say that ‘there is nothing to worry about, everything’s under control,’ is in rhetorical effect a bit like saying that Brutus is an honourable man. We are told to be afraid, but we are not told what to fear. There is nothing to be afraid of. A great big gaping unquantifiable nothing, the oscillating void of febrile nightmare, which the literature of paranoia from Kafka’s ‘The Burrow’ to Gravity’s Rainbow has recognised as the most potent terror of all. The paranoiac develops intricate fantasies of persecution in order to mask the unfaceable fact that the powers that be couldn’t actually give a shit about him.
Qantas Flight 10 from Singapore to Melbourne included two complimentary meals. Every passenger on the jumbo jet was supplied with metal knives and forks, twice. The plane landed safely and without incident. There is nothing to worry about.