The Futility Of Laptop Bans

In the last week, the USA and the UK placed a ban on large electronic devices in the aircraft cabins – that is, devices larger than 16 cm long, 9.3 cm wide, and 1.5 cm deep. Flights from Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia cannot carry devices to either the UK or the USA; those from Kuwait, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Morocco cannot fly to the USA; and those from Tunisia are banned from the UK. This ban follows the idea that bombs could be hidden in larger electronic devices. It is suggested that Australia will eventually follow suit. Downing Street claimed the ban was ‘necessary, effective and proportionate.’ The ban is allegedly the result of intelligence suggesting an ongoing interest in Jihadist groups in the Middle East blowing up a passenger plane in mid-air. A US counter-terrorism official claims that “The US government is concerned about terrorists’ ongoing interest in targeting commercial aviation, including transportation hubs over the past two years, Our information indicates that terrorist groups’ efforts to execute an attack against the aviation sector are intensifying.”

There are some in Whitehall who fear this may be an overreaction, and that it will be damaging to commercial and diplomatic interests; other cite evidence that a laptop bomb was smuggled on a flight from Somalia last year (interestingly not one of the countries included in the ban). I wholeheartedly agree with the concerns on a number of levels.

Problem one – Deterrence simply does not work. History tells us it has the opposite effect, it drives those who were wavering into the hands of extremists. This is predictable – on the one hand, you have a group that threatens to hurt you or your family unless you follow their narrow ideals. In any normal circumstance, you try to flee this threat. But Western countries will not help. This leaves you with two options. Live with a threat to your life, or join the extremists and save your family. Deterrence is not the answer. Closing the borders and acting as if enemies were at the gates is not the answer – it increases the risk of an attack.

Problem two – The idea that if a Jihadist group were truly interested in blowing up a plane mid-air, placing electronics in the hold would stop them. We invented timers long ago. If these devices were going to get through customs and onto planes, it would not matter whether they are in the hold or the cabin. An explosion in either could have disastrous consequences.

Problem three – the vast majority of terrorist attacks on Western soil come from Western-born insurgents. The terror attack in London this week was not the action of a Saudi Arabian, but a British-born individual, who had in the past been investigated by police for violent extremist tendencies.

These are all known facets in government. This suggests to me that the ban is not on reducing terrorist risk, but a revelation to the public that governments are doing something. Without being seen to do something, the public will begin to fear. Fear does horrible things to human minds, risking the control of the government and the safety of a nation’s citizens. I can appreciate the attempt to be seen to act, but to actually mitigate against the risk of terror activities, we need to explore the root of the problem. It is not because people are suddenly drawn more to religion and religious extremism. Our world is suffering intense social despondency – the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Governments aren’t doing anything to change it, in part because engagement in a democracy is also falling. If we want to stop extremism we need to create societies that are more appealing than the extremists; we need to make their claims laughable, not prove them correct; and we need to acknowledge the real, visible problems that our societies are facing and think of solutions rather than react to potential happenings that risk our security.