More Norman Wisdom than Osama Bin Laden

Nigerian truck bomb, 21 April 2007

They had an election in Nigeria. While they were getting ready to vote someone tried to blow up the Electoral Commission with a truck bomb. Truck bombs are pretty common these days. In Iraq and Afghanistan and a dozen other countries a truckload of flammable gas is a 100% effective, 100% lethal weapon.

Truck bombs are the insurgent’s weapon of choice now because – conveniently – there’s always a nutcase ready to get behind the wheel, a man who’s decided he’s happy to die for his meaningless cause, a martyr who’ll guide the thing all the way to its intended target.

The Nigerian truck bomb failed – let’s be honest – because a bunch of blokes shoved it down a hill before running away as fast as they could. Their potentially lethal, election-derailing truck bomb crashed into a telegraph pole, causing a small fire which was quickly extinguished.

These blokes just didn’t have a suicidal bone in their bodies. They jammed the biggest rock they could find onto the truck’s accelerator and hoped for the best. “Suicide mission? You never told me it was a suicide mission! Let’s just push it down the hill and bugger off…” In this fevered time of perfect, unimpeachable, hermetic fanaticism, this kind of 100% ineffective, Norman Wisdom-style insurgent action is almost comic relief. If only they were all like that.

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What is profiling?

Psychologists, ethnographers, market researchers, coppers: correct me if I’ve got this wrong. I think profiling works like this. You start by watching the behaviour of lots of people (more likely a representative sample). From your laborious, systematic observations, you infer characteristics so that you can say, with some certainty, “this behaviour = this characteristic”.

Then you derive the simplest possible indicators for these characteristics and codify them so that anyone can apply them. This is analagous to the way untrained HR staff are able to use sophisticated psychometric tests – they follow the steps printed on the laminated card and the result is close enough to be useful.

The point of all this mucking around – again, feel free to correct me here – is to exclude the kind of assumptions that trip us up when we make unguided assessments. Profiling, when it’s working, helps us to identify the right person (for the job, for the prison sentence, for the training scheme, for the next place in The Big Brother House…) in spite of our own prejudices.

So profiling is not about pulling young Asians out of the queue at customs but about reading the behaviour and appearance of a stream of people against the hints on the laminated card and isolating those most likely to be planning the next nihilist infamy, the next glorious assent into heaven or the next bank job. In fact, if profiling does boil down to hassling brown people, it’s not working.

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Abu, meet Rula

Abu Hamza, courtesy of PARula Lenska in The Big Brother House
He’s not an attractive man is he? He reminds me of a PE teacher I once knew – a cruel, self-important man we laughed at when he wasn’t looking (funnily enough, he wound up in prison too…). Anyway, since the man is an obvious jerk and since he’s probably about as dangerous as… er… Jodie Marsh, we think an appropriate punishment for him (should he be found guilty, of course) would be an extraordinary rendition – in a secret CIA limo – to The Big Brother House.

A few days eating toast in his pyjamas with that nasty, humourless cabal will make Guantanamo look like a Tupperware Party. Barrymore and Burns will soon have him snivelling in the diary room (or perhaps mewing like a kitten with Rula).

Alternatively, Juliet thinks he should be forced to run for leader of the Liberal Democrats. The humiliation would straighten him out.

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Is it possible (advisable, acceptable?) to blog Beslan? Blogging is such an utterly trivial thing to do with your time that even mentioning the apocalypse that overtook that town in North Ossetia must be wrong. Is it? I don’t know. It certainly feels crass to me… Would silence be worse, though? Of course, even worrying about all this is sickeningly self-obsessed. I should just register my grief and solidarity with the parents of Beslan and shut up (and maybe offer a link to the British Red Cross appeal for Beslan while I’m at it).

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A quiet city

Ticket for the 19 March 2003 performance of Tosca at the English National Opera in London

2023 UPDATE: I’d forgotten that the invasion of Iraq, which, when it began, had been so well-telegraphed, filled us all with such dread. I mean we all knew the exact day and time it would happen, weeks in advance. And London – other cities too – was in a state of alert (maybe not so weird, we were all still basically hysterical about 9/11). The bleak irony of the fact that we Londoners were all freaking out about the risk to our own lives as the invasion that produced almost two decades of chaos and suffering in Iraq was about to begin is, well, bleak. Anyway, what did I do that night? The night the coalition forces were gathering at the Iraqi border and getting ready to deliver what we would learn was called ‘shock and awe’ on the people of that other city? I went to the fucking opera. Original post follows:

Yesterday was my 40th birthday. Juliet and I went to the Coliseum to sob through the ENO‘s Tosca (a City in turmoil, gripped by fear – torture, love, war and betrayal). We stayed at a hotel practically next door in St Martin’s Lane. The hotel was half empty and there were plenty of empty seats at the Opera (Americans staying at home, apparently).

Our cab driver this morning made a cheeky u-turn by Trafalgar Square and jumpy, armed police practically arrested him (British police don’t usually carry guns). The streets of the West End are Sunday Morning quiet (and it’s not just the congestion charging).

No panic, no bulk buying, no drama at all really – just the barely tangible signs of a City’s building anxiety. It’s this kind of tiny shift in mood that slows an economy, trips up a recovery. Watching the rolling news in our hotel room, the empty streets of Baghdad echo and amplify London’s barely noticable slow-down.

(here’s an excellent Ten things you never knew about Tosca from the University of Chicago Press, by the way).