Illustration by Cei Willis
Richard Dawkins can always be relied upon to give a sense of perspective. When Rebecca Watson complained about a creepy guy accosting her in an elevator at an atheism conference, the godless leader was quick to provide the kind of valuable insight into the importance of sexism that only an old white dude can provide:
Yes, that's him, belittling Watson’s “whining” while bizarrely projecting onto her the character of a Muslim woman whose genitals have been mutilated. The sarcastic message: there are far more important things to worry about.
Like honey. We don’t know why Dawkins wanted to bring a moderate quantity of honey on a flight from Edinburgh to Heathrow. Perhaps it was a gift for a friend, or maybe he was traveling with a small bear. What we do know is that it violated airport security rules. We know this because of Dawkins’s measured response on Twitter: “Bin Laden has won, in airports of the world every day. I had a little jar of honey, now thrown away by rule-bound dundridges. STUPID waste.”
Professor Richard Dawkins is a man used to being taken seriously as a public intellectual. Unfortunately, Twitter doesn’t give a crap where you got your professorhood from, and its denizens unleashed a wave of mockery that culminated in the release of Richard Dawkins: Honey Defender by cult web… something, Us vs Th3m. Dawkins did his best to respectfully get his point across: “Do you idiots seriously think I give a damn about my stupid honey? It's the PRINCIPLE I care about. Get it? Principle, not honey, principle.”
Oddly, this appeal to reason failed to defuse the situation. Undaunted, Dawkins decided to take his views to a platform well known for its calm, sensible debates and respectful below-the-line atmosphere, Comment is Free. “After I tweeted about a pot of honey not being allowed on a plane, Twitter replied with a puerile display of sniggering frivolity,” he complained. Which was a bit unfair—Us vs Th3m hadn't been all that frivolous, they'd clearly put a lot of effort into their puerility.
It’s easy to mock Richard Dawkins on Twitter because, well, it’s Richard Dawkins on Twitter; but since we’re here, it’s worth taking a look at his views. Dawkins clearly believes something is amiss in the world of airport security, that there’s an irrational focus on bureaucratic rules and the "theater" of the airport security process that should be replaced with good old-fashioned common sense. But is he right? Are his objections rational?
Dawkins puts two broad points across in his various ramblings on the subject. The first is that it should be obvious who isn’t (and by extension, who might be) a terrorist. In one anecdote, he describes a “nice young mother” who was distraught because she couldn’t take on board a tub of ointment. Apparently “no sane person” would suspect her of being a terrorist. Why? “The fact that she was accompanied by children gave us the first clue. Supporting evidence trickled in from the brazen visibility of her face and hair, from her lack of a Koran, prayer mat or big black beard…”
What Dawkins is arguing here, in essence, is that we could train border agents by showing them Team America: World Police on loop for a few days. Except that this is so obviously wrong, ignorant, and stupid that it makes my nose bleed just typing it. The suicide bomber who killed 170 people in Karachi in 2007 is believed to have been a one year-old baby, carried by his father. The Taliban in particular have an evil history of recruiting children to carry out bombings. As for the adults, many suicide bombers are conventional looking women, and I failed to spot either a Koran or a big black beard in this picture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
There is no such thing as a person who "looks like" a terrorist, because terrorists can look like anybody—indeed, that’s kind of the point. They can be men, women, children, babies, bearded, clean-shaven, wearing a burqa or skinny jeans. Even if you did start profiling people based on something as obvious as beard length, the well-educated, middle-class people who tend to be behind large-scale terrorist attacks would just get their pawns to shave. But then what would they know, without the benefit of Dawkins’ vast intellect?
Dawkins argues that “human intelligence is undervalued these days,” but in fact that’s not the case. Human intelligence isn’t relied upon in these situations because humans are terrible at profiling people based on their appearance. The fact that Dawkins seems to believe terrorists look like an Arab version of Captain Hook ironically proves the point and defeats his own argument. If you put Richard Dawkins in charge of airline security, he wouldn’t have the first clue what to look for.
The second argument Dawkins makes is about the bomb itself. “The prohibition against taking more than very small quantities of liquids or unguents on planes is demonstrably ludicrous,” he says, adding, “it was no help that I recommended a website where a chemist explains, in delightfully comedic detail, what it would actually take to manufacture a workable bomb from binary liquid ingredients, laboring for several hours in the aircraft loo, using copious quantities of ice in relays of champagne coolers helpfully supplied by the cabin staff.”
Let’s leave aside the fact that I don’t want to be behind Dawkins in a line for anything ever. It’s great that he’s gone and googled and found a website that supports his beliefs. Unfortunately, he’s jumped on a huge misconception about liquid explosives and the reasoning behind the liquids ban. Binary explosives are formed of two ingredients—typically liquids—neither of which are explosive by themselves, but become explosive when they're introduced to each other. Yes, it’s true that manufacturing a working bomb from binary liquid ingredients smuggled onto an aircraft would be an infeasible (though theoretically possible) thing to do. But the ban on liquids has nothing to do with binary explosives.
Three would-be bombers convicted in 2008 had a perfectly viable plan to blow up multiple trans-Atlantic airliners. The bombs were based on a home-made liquid explosive made using hydrogen peroxide and Tang (a powdered fruit drink)—similar to the bombs used in the July 2005 London bombings. About 16 ounces of the liquid would have been carried in a standard drink bottle. Small detonator charges were to be constructed using hollowed-out AA batteries, triggered by a camera flash unit. Once brought on board, the parts could be easily assembled and triggered in-flight. As the Guardian reported: “Tests by government scientists, played to the jury, produced videos of the devices producing an explosion powerful enough to punch a hole in an aircraft fuselage.”
Viable plots like that—not the semimythical straw-man of binary explosives—are why the liquids restrictions remain in place. Conceivably, several people working together could still smuggle enough liquid on board to blow up an airliner, but the odds of success diminish rapidly the more people are required.
There is, of course, an important debate to be had about civil liberties, and the proportionality of our response to terror threats. There are sensible arguments to be made, for example, about why we are prepared to spend so many resources protecting airline passengers given the far greater toll inflicted by car travel, or the lack of mental health services. That debate should be informed by the facts though, not "stuff that Richard Dawkins read once on the internet."
In the meantime, the men and women who staff security checks at Heathrow, Edinburgh, and other airports around the world do an important, demanding and thankless job incredibly well. They deserve better than a self-important man using his influence to call them silly names in the national press because they took his little pot of honey away.
Follow Martin on Twitter: @mjrobbins