The United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz is clearly heading for great things. Not only did he defend the actions of the security goons in Chicago on the grounds that the unfortunate doctor who was booted off the flight to Louisville was being “disruptive and belligerent”, but he stated that “While I deeply regret this situation arose, I also emphatically stand behind all of you, and I want to commend you for continuing to go above and beyond to ensure we fly right.”
That’s what’s known in the media business as doubling down.
What, I wonder, would be flying wrong? Picking on an Asian couple would entirely chime with the Trumpian age. What the hell were they doing on the flight in the first place? Perhaps flying wrong would be to select a nice middle-class couple of a less obvious ethnic origin and dragging them screaming and kicking off the flight. Or insisting that your staff shouldn’t leave it to the last moment to get home in time for work, and expect those who pay their wages to have their lives thus disrupted. Or insisting that your people should have the foresight to avoid an on-board rebellion by selecting those to be denied boarding before they actually get on the plane.
What, I wonder, does United’s procedures handbook say about these matters? Is there a section about profiling targets for extraction? As in “if you have to kick someone off the flight, choose an elderly Asian doctor, because his culture abhors confrontation. Don’t go for a 300-pound American footballer who could probably punch a hole in the fuselage without the help of explosives. And don’t go for an elderly matron who looks like your grandmother, or every other grandmother on the flight will rise in solidarity. Don’t select anyone in uniform, or you might be accused of being unpatriotic.”
Probably not. Most likely this wisdom is passed on orally – nothing written down.
If I was happily settled into my seat, having anaesthetised my legs to allow them to fold up into an stress position behind the seat in front of me, looking forward to my complementary dog biscuit, I might be mildly pissed off to be told by a couple of paramilitary flight attendants that my presence was no longer welcome, and then to be dragged out bleeding by a SWAT team from the airport security force.
And if I was a doctor, I might wonder at the gall of an airline that would be quite happy to call out on the intercom “is there a doctor on the plane?” and expect me to revive a passenger in trouble, yet equally happy to haul me out of my seat as if I was a terrorist, or a drunk on a stag trip.
Perhaps I should give United the benefit of the doubt, and ascribe their PR fiasco to rank incompetence, or lack of staff training.
In which case, for his own incompetence, his warped sense of what it means to go above and beyond, and his unerring ability to keep digging once he fell into a hole, Mr Munoz should be rewarded with the supreme accolade for such qualities: a place in Donald Trump’s White House.
It’s been a week that has caused me to revisit some long-held certainties.
I’m not referring to the attack on Westminster. An incident of this kind was entirely predictable, just as was its exploitation for political purposes by various ne’er-do-wells. It was not the first, and it will not be the last. I would have said the same in the 1970s as each IRA atrocity unfolded.
Two other events led me to spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about whether we can truly say that we’re governed by the rule of law in the face of apparent evidence to the contrary.
On Sunday morning I went to a lecture in London by Phillipe Sands. He was speaking about his book, East West Street. If you’re not familiar with it, here’s a brief review that I wrote few months ago:
A deeply moving account by Phillipe Sands, an eminent barrister and professor of law, who pieces together the history of his Jewish family from their origins in Lemburg (also known as Lvov and latterly Lviv). He intertwines the lives of four men and their families. Three of them lived few streets away from each other: his maternal grandfather, Leon Bucholtz, along with Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin. The latter two were lawyers who subsequently had a profound influence on the development of international law. The fourth person was Hans Frank, Hitler’s viceroy in Poland and the other occupied territories in the East.
As a member of the team of lawyers preparing for the Nuremberg trials of the Nazi leadership, Lauterpacht created the concept of crimes against humanity. Lemkin first coined the term genocide. Although Lemkin’s concept was not universally accepted by the four powers represented at Nuremberg (for fear that the term being used to describe earlier historical events of which the victors were not proud) the two lawyers were authors of two enduring planks of international law, even though they didn’t see eye to eye on the details. Lauterpacht was focused on crimes in terms of their effects on individuals. Lemkin believed that prosecutions for war crimes should be conducted on the basis of crimes against groups.
In Sands’ narrative, all roads led to Nuremburg. For Frank, the trial ended with the death sentence. At the time of the trials neither lawyer was aware of the fate of their extended families and Frank’s part in it. Only subsequently did they and Leon Bucholtz discover that their loved ones were among more than two thousand residents of nearby Zolkiev who rounded up, shot and buried in a forest outside the town. Other family members ended up at the Treblinka death camp.
When we talk blithely about a world turned upside down in the wake of Trump’s election, we should read this book and consider the fate of Lemburg/Lviv/Lvov, a city that over thirty years ended up by treaty or through invasion within the borders of three separate states, and whose population suffered endless turmoil.
You don’t have to be Jewish and to have been robbed of a normal family history to appreciate the legacy of Lemkin and Lauterpacht. Thanks in large part to the work of two outstanding lawyers, tyrants, warlords and their foot-soldiers know that today there is an International Criminal Court waiting for the opportunity to reward them for their efforts.
Although East West Street is an invaluable primer of the origins of international criminal law, in essence it’s a book about individuals and their stories, eloquently told by an author who has through his work encountered more than his fair share of inhumanity. To that extent, you sense that Lauterpacht, with his emphasis on the individual, is the greater influence on Sands as he weaves together the strands of human tragedy and survival in this impressive and compassionate book.
Listening to Mr Sands speak for an hour – in complete sentences as lawyers do – didn’t add significantly to what he had written in the book, but it did convince me that I was in the presence of an impressive and compassionate man.
I would have liked to have asked him one or two questions, but I rarely hold my hand up in such gatherings. I’m what Daniel Kahneman refers to as a slow thinker. Unless I’m well-versed in a subject, I like to reflect for a while before speaking, and in that forum – where the majority of those who did speak up seemed more interested in expressing their views than on getting Mr Sands to elaborate on his – I had nothing to offer on the spur of the moment.
But the effect of the talk was that in the subsequent few days I’ve thought of little other than war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
I might have asked him where you draw the line in deciding to prosecute for genocide. How large does the targeted group have to be? Also, what was the rationale in excluding actions against political groups from most definitions of genocide?
More specifically, what of the Burmese persecution of the Rohingya? Does that amount to genocide? If so, does it make it less likely that a prosecution of Aung San Su Kyi might succeed because she is a Nobel Peace Prize winner? Or might it be that she lacks the power over her partners in government? But as a member of that government, is she culpable in failing to speak up, and failing to try to restrain those who do have the power?
Concerning war crimes, do you have to be on the losing side to be prosecuted? Which begs the question of whether the International Criminal Court is truly an independent body, or subject to the political sensibilities of those nations that have the power to bring alleged perpetrators to justice?
And I would have been interested to know whether Mr Sands believes that people trafficking and other violation of human rights constitute crimes against humanity? And what of female genital mutilation?
I have a fair idea that he would describe the International Criminal Court as a work in progress – that successful prosecutions are the art of the possible. He might also say that laws are written by people, and reflect the imperfections of humanity. And to those who argue that they’re written by God, he might comment that they still need to be interpreted – often imperfectly – by humans.
But far be it for me to put words in his mouth. No doubt he would have some more deeply considered opinions.
Then came the second event – the death of Martin McGuinness. A man never brought to trial for his activities as an IRA commander. Deliberately, so it seems, because the British government of the time apparently felt that he had leadership qualities that would be essential if a peace deal were to be reached in Northern Ireland.
So did the government suspend the rule of law in McGuinness’s case? And what of the lives the IRA took, including the twenty-one people on a night out in a couple of Birmingham pubs – an event that happened in my home town? Would Mr Sands argue that their killing – and those at Warrington, Enniskillen and the Baltic Exchange – amounted to a crime against humanity?
When, in fact, is it allowable to subordinate justice to a greater political good – as appeared to be the case when under the Good Friday Agreement murderers were allowed to serve shortened sentences?
Since McGuinness’s death, the great and the good have lined up to praise his contribution to the peace process, while some also took care to remember his earlier deeds.
Of all the quoted reactions, the most heartfelt arguably came from Norman Tebbit, the politician whose wife was crippled by the Brighton bomb during the 1988 Conservative Party Conference, and who was badly injured himself. He said: “He claimed to be a Roman Catholic. I hope that his beliefs turn out to be true and he’ll be parked in a particularly hot and unpleasant corner of Hell for the rest of eternity.” A howl of anguish and fury if ever there was one.
The moral dilemmas around the treatment of those who have been complicit in terrible crimes did not start and will not end with McGuinness. What respect for justice did the victorious allies show when they spirited some useful war criminals out of Germany in 1945? Was it right that the worst oppressors of the apartheid regime in South Africa were forgiven their crimes through the Truth and Reconciliation process? Were the US and Britain wrong, as Pakistan once claimed, to decapitate the Taliban leadership, thereby eliminating those with sufficient stature to negotiate a peace agreement? Should we be talking to “Caliph” Baghdadi of ISIS as part of an effort to end the conflict in Syria and Iraq? Or with the murderous Kim Jong Un in order to neutralise North Korea’s nuclear capability?
A notable absentee from Martin McGuinness’s funeral was Tony Blair, one of the main architects of the Northern Ireland peace process. His misfortune was that his political trajectory went the opposite way to that of the former IRA commander. If his career in government had ended before he took Britain to war in 2003, he would now be one of our most respected former Prime Ministers, mainly remembered for the Good Friday Agreement and his positive interventions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo. As it is, since the Iraq war he has been dogged by accusations ranging from bad faith to war crimes. Does he deserve to be excoriated while McGuinness is escorted to his grave with plaudits from his former enemies?
All of which reminds me that the rule of law, that cherished foundation upon which we are told liberal democracies are built, is to an extent a fictional device. It bends under the influence of power and expediency. Which is why we need lawyers like Phillipe Sands, who operates in the realm of the possible, yet in East West Street also gives voice to the victims who found their own ways to deal with the injustices visited on them both collectively and individually.
Justice is not blind, and the rule of law is not sacred, it seems, even in those countries that boast most loudly about their high moral standards. And sadly the victims with perhaps the most cause to howl cannot do so. Because they’re gone. The rest of us, victims or not, carry on and hope for better days.
Following on from my last post about the US ban on devices larger than phones in cabin baggage, it wasn’t fake news. Britain is following suit, so it must be true! Canada is thinking about doing likewise, so I suppose it won’t be long before every country indicates its preference for having explosive devices blow up in the holds of their aircraft rather than in the cabin.
Again, I have to ask whether this initiative is based on real intelligence – the stuff gleaned by spooks – or as the result of some enthusiastic helper in the White House trying to convince us – and particular the American public – that we really are in danger because of some evil new technique dreamed up by ISIS, Al-Qaeda, the Iranians or whoever.
I don’t know, and I can’t know. But I will offer the observation that as soon as you treat spook-derived intelligence as an opportunity to advance your political agenda rather than deal with it on its own merits, then you increase the chance that people will think you’re crying wolf. Fake news begets fake intelligence, right?
This must be tough to bear for the spooks who, whatever games their political masters get up to, are without question dedicated, professional and patriotic – in my country and America, at least. All the worse when their masters turn on them should the “one in a hundred” plot succeed.
In my dark moments I’m starting to wonder where this will all lead.
What will those devilish scientists beavering away in a tunnel somewhere under Raqqa come up with next? Perhaps some explosive that can impregnate a physical book – you open the book and it automatically detonates. Then think of a cheese sandwich. What horrors might lurk inside the filling? So no books allowed, and no food.
And if you happen to be travelling from Kuala Lumpur, will you be allowed to bring a perfume atomiser under the 100g limit? After all, Kim Jong Un’s half-brother was snuffed out with a hankie impregnated with VX gas. Someone running up the aircraft spraying that stuff would leave half the passengers in their death throes within minutes. So no containers of any liquid, no matter what the size.
Are we approaching the point where anyone with a brown skin and a name that sounds vaguely Muslim (or North Korean) will only allowed on the aircraft handcuffed and sedated? Yes, I know this post is getting silly, but the serious point is this: where do you draw the line? Or rather, where do you draw the line without making air travel unpalatable to the majority of passengers, and seriously antagonising a good proportion of them?
Or to look at it another way, are we so nannied that we’re unable to face the reality that there are many ways to die in an aircraft, and being blown up is by no means the most likely cause of death. Flying is risky. But not half as much as driving a car while eating a cheese sandwich or talking on a mobile phone.
For goodness sake, one of the risks of living is that at some stage we might die. Hopefully this nonsense will pass before we become afraid to step out of our homes unless we’re dressed in a flak jacket and a Kevlar helmet.
Before that baleful eventuality comes to pass, you have to reckon that the more the safety experts do to protect us by anticipating threats to the nth degree, the greater the chance that international travel as we know it today will shrivel and die. It will once again become a pastime only for the wealthy. The rest of us will take the train or go on our holidays to Bognor Regis or Coney Island.
Is this the post-globalisation world that the protectionists and isolationists wish upon us? Probably not, and as soon as the airlines start imploding you can rely on them to fight back. They will put pressure on Trump, May and all the other political leaders who justify ever more ridiculous measures with the mantra that that they have our safety at heart.
If it brought some small measure of sanity back to the experience of flying, I for one would gladly sign a disclaimer stating that I am aware that the aircraft I travel in is at risk of being crashed into a skyscraper, blasted out of the sky by a surface-to-air missile, blown to smithereens by a bomb in the hold (or the cabin), because that’s reality.
As things are, I don’t care if I can’t have my laptop or tablet in the cabin if that’s what it takes to reduce the chances of my violent death from one in a million to one in ten million.
But I’m not convinced that that will be the outcome. And I refuse to live my life – in an aircraft or anywhere else – with the grinning spectre of Osama bin Laden constantly in attendance.
I really wonder whether in some US government departments there is an inability to distinguish between intelligence and intelligence. By which I mean the difference between received intelligence and innate intelligence, between paranoia and common sense, or between emotion and logic.
The Transportation Safety Agency’s ban on airline passengers carrying any electronic device bigger than a mobile phone in cabin baggage on certain flights into the United States is a case in point.
The ban applies to airlines flying non-stop into the US from ten airports in the Middle East. But not to US airlines. The focus appears to be on the security procedures of the airports concerned, and by implication, the trustworthiness of ground staff and airline employees.
Understandable, given the explosion over Sinai two years ago that brought down a Russian airliner flying from Cairo, about which I commented at the time. But I’m not sure the airport authorities in Dubai, Qatar and some of the airports affected will take kindly to their security procedures being compared with those in Cairo.
So by the new rules, an American Airlines flight from Abu Dhabi to New York is OK, because it’s American. But an Etihad flight is not. Not so logical when you consider – as the journalist Yaroslav Trofimov pointed out on Twitter this morning – that flights from Istanbul and Dubai are not OK, but those from Dakar and Caracas are.
Also not so logical when you imagine that a terrorist intent on blowing up a plane with some fiendish and as yet unidentified method will be motivated to find a route that takes them on to an American flight. Presumably they would be undeterred by the prospect of being offered one of AA’s awful pizzas at the end of the journey, on the basis that the flight wouldn’t make it that far.
You could understand the TSA’s thinking (or that of the NSA, the FBI, the CIA, the White House or whoever else is behind the decision) reckoning that a rush of people suddenly changing their flights to US airlines would raise a useful red flag for extra special screening. But that “intelligence” would only have a limited shelf life.
The bureaucrats or their political masters have surely taken into account that no flag carrier of a Middle East country to the best of my knowledge has ever been targeted by a terrorist intent on attacking America or American citizens, with the exception of El Al, which flies out of Israel. Tel Aviv, apparently, is not on the list.
The media chatter is centred on two possible motives for the decision. Buzzfeed quotes a “former US official” as saying that the measure is “a Muslim ban by a thousand cuts”. Trofimov says that “The new US restrictions will make many wonder whether the real aim is to hurt Gulf carriers like Emirates and Qatar and Turkish Airlines”. Two outcomes for the price of one, perhaps?
The whole exercise strikes me as irredeemably dumb, unless it has been prompted by some intelligence of the paranoid, spooky sort. It will piss off the thousands of law-abiding kids from Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf countries whose student fees prop up many US educational institutions. It will confirm in the minds of millions of people in the affected countries that they are not welcome in the US under any circumstances, as if the previous attempted bans haven’t already done so. And it will certainly make me think twice about travelling to America on a US airline, and not just because of the pizza.
As I write this I’m imagining a Doonesbury cartoon with two American bureaucrats in discussion:
“We need to do something about the Muslims”
“Because they hate us.”
“So what are we going to do?”
“Let’s ban a bunch of them from coming here.”
“Then they’ll hate us even more.”
“That’s fine. Then we can ban the rest of them. Problem solved!”
I’m sure Doonesbury would come up with something subtler, but hopefully you get the gist.
I do wonder how it is that a country with so many fine minds has ended up with a government run by so many stupid people.
It’s almost as though all that intelligence has cancelled itself out. On the other hand, perhaps it’s fake news, in which case I’m the dimwit.