The electronics ban: malice or stupidity? Protectionism or security?

Picture of Donald Trump with a white cap with the words "Make America Great Again" on it, with a Boeing 757 with a dark blue, red and white livery and the word "TRUMP" on it.Yesterday, the Trump administration announced that ‘large’ electronic items such as tablets and laptops were to be banned from US-bound flights on some airlines, all based in the Arab world or Turkey, from airports in those countries to the USA. Hours later, the UK announced it would follow suit, banning such items on all aeroplanes from an overlapping group of countries to the UK. This immediately provoked an outcry, as the American ban smacked of protectionism, making the Arab and Turkish carriers uncompetitive for both business travellers, who need their laptops to write reports and so on while travelling, and families, who rely on tablets to entertain their children during long flights; the same accusation cannot be made about the new rules on UK-bound flights. There is a saying that one should not attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity, but given that the people in charge in the USA are Trump and his clique, there is plenty here that can be explained by both.

The American rules ban large electronic items on direct flights on local carriers to the US from Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia plus Morocco, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE. The British rules ban them on all flights to the UK from the first five countries plus Tunisia, and Lebanon. The American rules immediately struck most people as making no sense: countries which also have current or recent civil wars or terrorist problems (Algeria, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan) are excluded, not all of which have direct flights to the US but some do. If a certain item is known to be in use as a means to smuggle bombs onto planes, the done thing is to ban them all on all flights; thus, when terrorists were found to be preparing liquid explosions to be ignited on board in 2006, the British authorities banned liquids on all flights for everyone; only drinks bought air-side after screening and bottles of less than 100ml are allowed on (if it’s baby food, you have to drink a bit of it yourself). When terrorists used knives to hijack passenger aircraft and slam them into buildings in 2001, sharp objects were banned on all flights, for everyone. Given that American airlines are owned by Americans and more likely to be used by them, their craft would be a more desirable target for terrorists than Emirati-owned craft that are full of Arab and Muslim families travelling between family homes. Particularly when Trump has promised support for American carriers against overseas, government-supported airlines and had been under pressure from their executives to do so, the accusation of naked protectionism is inevitable.

The British ban irons out some of those concerns, excluding the more stable countries (which also excludes the airlines with strong commercial links to the UK, such as Etihad and Emirates) and including some which have links to the Syrian civil war and those with recent ISIS activity, such as Tunisia which was the site of a mass shooting by ISIS operatives a couple of years ago, and whose political stability is not guaranteed, particularly if the present government attempts to ban the Islamist opposition or return to the conditions of the Bourguiba/Ben Ali régime. It makes more sense as an anti-terrorist measure, but Britain has a habit of both following the US in stupid policy and making laws that target specific populations but affect everyone — the overseas marriage bar for low-income British citizens, targeted at low-income Pakistanis, for example, but which provokes protest only when middle-class whites find that they cannot bring a spouse from the US or Singapore either. The UK, being as it is in the process of cutting itself off from the trading bloc it currently belongs to, needs to appear to be on the Americans’ side, so its participation, even on different terms, does not lend this as much credibility as if other European or Western nations had also followed suit, which so far they have not.

According to ABC, the new rules supposedly follow credible intelligence that “ISIS associates were working on smuggling explosives-laden electronics onto U.S.-bound flights”. Yet it does not explain why only locally-based airlines were targeted and not US carriers; surely, the same security procedures apply for all passengers at the same airport. If this really is the reason, it demonstrates that Trump and his team are spectacularly incompetent, putting passengers’ lives at risk by treating American commercial interests as if they were more important. We should watch how the US carriers respond; if they believe that the terrorist threat is real, they should introduce similar bans of their own; if they do not, we will know that the ‘intelligence’ does not exist and that the ban is motivated by Trump’s desire to privilege large American companies and to break links between American Muslim families and their relatives in the Arab world.

Of course, electrical items have always been regarded as potential terrorist threats; even in the 1980s, airport staff would ask you if you had had your Walkman repaired before you took it on (i.e. if it was still how it came from the factory). Many laptops have spaces where components such as hard drives, DVD drives and so on can be installed by the user or a dealer, but many don’t; newer Macs, for example, have no user-upgradeable parts (and in some cases cannot even be upgraded by Apple themselves) and any add-ons have to be through an external port. If this is a real anti-terrorist measure, some way should be found to allow sealed units, or devices whose identity can be certified, onto planes while excluding older devices which are easier to compromise. Meanwhile, stowing large numbers of lithium-ion batteries in the hold of an aircraft, to which neither passengers nor crew have access during flights, is believed to be a fire risk, while airlines cannot be trusted not to break laptops while throwing them around at the airports (they already have a woeful record on handling valuable, breakable items such as wheelchairs and musical instruments); owners are currently not accustomed to using the same kinds of protective casing for their laptops as professional musicians use for their instruments. As for the entertainment issue, I have heard it suggested that airlines provide free tablets for their passengers, but they likely will not have the same apps and are extremely unlikely to have the accessibility features switched on.

It is essential that the US government are pressed to explain the inconsistencies in their policies. Unless a satisfactory answer is forthcoming, there must be retaliation, such as the same rules being imposed on US carriers’ flights out of the same airports. Any genuine anti-terrorist security measure applies to everyone, not just to unfavoured commercial organisations.

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