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Yanks not impressed with UK terror emergency

More red-mercury fantasy, or Katrina-like indifference?

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Comment US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff appeared relaxed, even amused, during a Washington press conference where he explained the American response to the UK airport terror emergency.

A few security inconveniences will be put in place until the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) figures out how better to deal with the threat of liquid explosives that the British believe are now in play. (For a good primer on improvised explosives using household chemicals, see this Naval Postgraduate School thesis.)

The new measures are confined to preventing US travelers from carrying liquids into the aircraft cabin, with exceptions for common-sense items such as drugs and infant formula. Otherwise, US passengers will be permitted to carry the usual items on board.

The overall terror threat level for airlines has been raised from yellow to orange, except that the level for UK flights bound for the USA has been raised to red. When asked why DHS had made this exception, Chertoff explained that it was meant to harmonize the US assessment with the British assessment: a polite way of saying that, for now, America is willing to humor UK officials.

Chertoff's demeanor and body language belied any notion that there's a serious emergency. This means either that US officials are quite underwhelmed by the UK's evidence of a feasible terrorist plot, or that the US government's casual indifference toward catastrophic loss of life and property, as exhibited when New Orleans was destroyed, is the new American attitude.

In favor of option one, we have a recent history of British eagerness to announce breakthroughs in the struggle against the forces of darkness, with nothing to show for it. We have Jean Charles de Menezes shot to bits at point-blank range for behaving oddly just after the 7/7 atrocity. We have the imaginary ricin plot. We have the imaginary chemical bomb plot. And we have the imaginary red-mercury suitcase nuke plot.

There's been a lot of crying wolf in London, so it should surprise no one to find that the Americans have heard enough of it. (Although, to be fair, Washington has trumpeted its share of counterterrorist breakthroughs involving semi-harmless losers, but that's no reason for them to buy into anyone else's.)

In favor of option two, we have Hurricane Katrina, heckuva-job-Brownie, and government indifference toward mass suffering, death, and property destruction on a scale that makes 9/11 look like a garden party. This suggests that 9/11 served its purpose by leading to endless mass suffering, death, and property destruction in Iraq, which is all it ever was worth to the Bush Administration.

According to this hypothesis, phony agonizing over 9/11 got Junior his longed-for war in Iraq, so there's no further need to shed crocodile tears and whine publicly about the blood of innocents. To a government willing to brush off the destruction of an entire US city, and to preside over the destruction of a foreign nation, a few planes blowing up over the Atlantic is small potatoes.

Whether we're seeing the true Bushie callousness laid bare, or a healthy American skepticism toward HMG's repeated exhibition of a phony terrorist menace as a pretext to introduce the Kafka-esque legislation favored by Tony Blair and John Reid, will be answered by and by. There will be successful prosecutions, or there will be official excuses verging on an apology, but not quite amounting to one.

We will see. ®

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