In The Event Of An Emergency, Please Remain Seated


I think it’s time for a little more anarchy and a little less acquiescence.

Not in the sense of the all-out chaos and social disorder that is often associated with anarchy, but rather in allowing common sense to be the driving force in our society. We should trust ourselves to act on our own sense of rational or principled behaviour, rather than being strangled with over-regulation and giving up our ability to make sensible decisions.

We need to question whether new rules and technology make things better or worse. For example, the street I live on is busy, but it’s also long and straight with only a handful of intersections between here and the centre of my town. I have lived here for almost a decade and in that time, as far as I am aware, it has been crash free. Nonetheless, a set of traffic lights has been installed at the midway point. The result? There are now traffic jams as people line up, waiting to give way to the non-existent traffic from the side street.

This is despite the fact that around the world progressive cities are removing traffic lights and gratuitous road signs to integrate all types of road users, including pedestrians, because so-called “naked” streets, rather than resulting in chaos, produce lower speeds for motor traffic; shorter trip times; and fewer serious crashes. The logic behind this shared-space theory is that traffic lights make us bow mindlessly to technology and lull us into a false sense of security, whereas if you create uncertainty on the roads they actually become safer because we compensate for the perceived risk by behaving more cautiously and being more alert.

In a totally different field of endeavour, I have a friend who spent some time doing a rotation as an anaesthetist in another country — a country which will remain nameless but is currently driving the push for greater airline security regulation. My friend tells a story about an operation at which he was assisting in a major teaching hospital. He noticed that the patient was becoming oxygen deficient. The lead anaesthetist checked the monitor and dismissed his concerns, pointing out that all the equipment showed the patient was fine. “But look at his nails, they’re turning blue!” blurted my friend. The patient survived and interns were instructed that in future actually looking at the patient could be a useful complementary form of oxygen monitoring.

More recently, we have had the failed mid-air terrorism drama. Umar Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate an incendiary device in his underpants and a quick-thinking passenger instinctively jumped on Abdulmutallab and restrained him as other passengers joined in to subdue the man.

The reaction of the authorities to this act of bravery and commonsense by the passengers has been to propose new security measures which require all passengers to remain in their seats without any of their belongings for the last hour of the flight. (Note to would-be terrorists: prepare your bomb at least 65 minutes before landing.)

Haven’t the powers-that-be heard of Neighbourhood Watch? Don’t they appreciate the deterrent effect on anti-social behaviour of active, vigilant citizens in a community — be it suburban or airborne?

Jeremy Bentham may have come up with the idea of the panopticon as a tool for social control because the prisoners never knew when they were being observed. So, ideally, they would behave well all the time. But panoptical thinking can also provide us with freedom and safety — as shown in the Abdulmutallab case.

But instead, the people who already had Abdulmutallab on their terrorist register — even his father had alerted them to the fact he was a bad apple — have brought in tighter regulations so that the one group of people who can practically deal with such mid-air incidents will be disempowered and told to stay in their places.

After the “shoe bomber” incident we had to take off our shoes and stop carrying liquids. After the “undie bomber” incident we now have to have body searches and stay seated — but apparently we can take knitting needles and nail clippers onboard again so at least we won’t be bored.

When faced with danger during 11 September on Flight 93, the actions of Todd Beamer and his fellow passengers ensured there was no loss of lives on the ground. During the 25 December flight to Detroit the actions of Jasper Schuringa and his fellow passengers ensured the undie bomber failed.

Tighter regulations or an active citizenry? I know who I’d prefer to trust with my fate.