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Anti-Muslim laptop ban won't make us more secure

Catherine Marshall |  17 May 2017


Travel just got a whole lot harder. As if those wasted hours spent standing in disconsolate queues, removing shoes and jackets and laptops, discarding perfectly good bottles of water and wine and body lotion, submitting to random drug tests and full-body scans and being barked at by security guards weren't enough to put people off air travel, the newest restrictions might do the trick.

Person using laptop on a planeTaking the lead from the US and the UK, which recently announced the prohibition of laptops and large electronic devices on flights from certain Middle Eastern and North African countries, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has confirmed that Australia is contemplating doing the same.

The motivation for such a ban would be, ostensibly, to keep us all safe from the laptop-generated bombs — undetectable on airport security systems — that have apparently been developed by ISIS and other terrorist organisations.

The countries targeted by the US and the UK are said to have less reliable systems in place for the detection of such explosive devices, and so by banning large electronic devices on flights originating from these places, travellers will be protected from potential harm.

This may well be the case — after all, terrorism has become rampant and airlines are a vulnerable target, especially in this age of widespread travel. To be sure, steps must be taken to protect travellers from those who wish them harm.

But Australia should think carefully about adopting a ban that singles out Muslim majority countries under the guise of keeping its citizens safe. In so doing, it will be hitching itself to President Donald Trump's blatant anti-Muslim agenda, which arose early in his presidency with his ban on travellers from Muslim majority countries.

While it might make sense to ban potential bomb-carrying devices on flights from those countries where terrorist groups tend to be based, in reality it negatively profiles these countries and the people who come from them. This is precisely the kind of dog whistle politics the likes of Trump and our own Pauline Hanson have engaged in in an effort to stir up anti-Muslim sentiment among their constituents.

And the erratic implementation of this new policy arouses suspicion. While there is some overlap in the countries affected by the US and UK bans, their lists are not identical. Countries on the UK's list are absent from the US's, and vice versa. How will Australia determine which countries to include in its ban? If the intelligence is to be trusted, surely all countries privy to it would be espousing a joint strategy.


"Bans on people from blacklisted places will not contain the rise of this scourge, but entrench divisions among otherwise moderate members of society and engender feelings of antipathy among those at risk of radicalisation."


Moreover, such policy glosses over the reality of internet-era terrorism: the enemy — or, to be precise, the radicalised Muslim — is already living among us. In the west, bombs have been replaced with out-of-control motor vehicles as a preferred method of terrorist attack. Bans and restrictions on people from blacklisted places will not contain the rise of this scourge. Rather, they will entrench the divisions among otherwise moderate members of society and engender feelings of antipathy among those at risk of radicalisation.

For the traveller, these ever tighter-restrictions have already turned a commonplace activity into one riddled with fear and mistrust. Yet it's hard to determine whether airport security helps to prevent terrorist attacks in the first place. In 2015, an internal investigation of the US Transportation Security Administration — which receives $8 billion in funding annually — revealed that undercover investigators managed to smuggle mock explosives or banned weapons through checkpoints in 95 percent of trials.

And it's impossible to justify the disproportionate restrictions placed on travellers around the world by US-initiated security protocols. While the number of would-be terrorists thwarted while carrying explosive-laden face cream or bomb-rigged laptops is top secret, a 2016 study reveals that Americans have a one in 45,808 chance of dying in a terrorist attack. Yet so overblown is modern airport security, it has been described by some experts as 'security theatre': a scenario in which countermeasures are applied so as to make people feel secure when in fact they are no more secure than they were before.

So, instead of jumping onto Trump's fearmongering bandwagon and thereby making an enemy of everyone — precisely the scenario terrorists desire — our government should take the advice it often doles out to us: remain alert but not alarmed. And instead of relying on blind trust, travellers should remember this: the more our government insists there is an enemy from whom it will shield us, the less secure we will feel.


Catherine MarshallCatherine Marshall is a Sydney-based journalist and travel writer.



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Submitted comments

If it is proved that bombs can be placed on Australia's airlines flying out of certain countries known to harbour criminals and exercising inadequate screening security, it would be bloody silly, irresponsible and negligent not to prevent such potential bombs being carried onto the aircraft. Why in God's name do so many commentators in this country want to find fault with everything the government does even when the action is designed to protect Australian citizens and other non-Australian citizens flying on our aircraft? Remain alert but not alarmed Australia - that stops the bombs exploding!

john frawley 18 May 2017

All of the difficulties mentioned in the first paragraph have been made necessary by Muslim terrorism

John O'Rourke 19 May 2017

I am unsure whether it was you, Catherine, or the sub-editor who chose the byline for this article. The ban would not be designed to be 'anti-Muslim' so much as 'anti-terror'. Sadly, the current terror threat comes from those who label themselves 'Muslims', although these have been roundly condemned by many, many other Muslims, including having fatwas (religious rulings) issued against them and their indiscriminate murder techniques. Some brave souls have even labelled them 'kaffir' (a term which connotes those who have departed from under the broad umbrella of Islam). John Frawley is correct: if heightened security saves lives than it is worth the price. Sadly, it is not so much laptops we need fear but their extremist ideology. This ideology is being spread by extremist clerics who poison the minds of youth here and abroad. Fighting these ideas is what is really important long term.

Edward Fido 19 May 2017

I;m sure the Muslim residents of these countries where laptop restrictions are in place share in the relief of arriving unharmed at their destinations. Whether there's a real threat or not - I can't see the point of adding this costly, time-consuming security measure just to offend Muslims.

AURELIUS 19 May 2017

Any security checks the airlines have are fine by me, it's no big deal, understand it for what it is and get over it. When I get off a plane I'm grateful to all those who made safe travel possible. Sadly, some people choose to be just plain bad and that is a personal decision.

Jane 19 May 2017

Unfortunately, there is an appearance that Australia is compelled to comply with all US security "recommendations". We don't seem ever to say "No", even when it would seem to be the sensible thing to do.

Vivien Collins 19 May 2017

Actually, Vivien, I think we made the decision based on real intelligence. This is no 'follow the leader' syndrome.

Edward Fido 19 May 2017

If we stopped interfering in some of these countries, maybe the threat would disappear.

Ginger Meggs 21 May 2017

Sadly, Ginger, after the first invasion of Iraq to find non-existent 'weapons of mass destruction', the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. It may be impossible to put it back for a very long time and after much effort.

Edward Fido 22 May 2017

If security is the chief concern, surely a blanket policy on all-flights-all-countries is in order? The other issue here, that of the other "deputy" UK, then Aust simply following US policy, not because it makes sense, but that is ingratiates us (ie PM & Cabinet) to them (ie President) is as pointed as predictable. It seems Aust and the UK consistently fail to see the influence they could have over US policy by occasionally disagreeing. Resistance from his own gang members will curb a bully's behavior.

Kevin Wilson 22 May 2017

The 'WMD' fiasco wasn't the first interference Edward. We (the west, and particularly England, France and, more recently, the US have been 'interfering' for more than 200 years. See Roger Hardy's 'The Poisoned Well: Empire and Its Legacy in the Middle East' (OUP 2017). And it's always been about securing access to resources.

Ginger Meggs 23 May 2017

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