Bicycle bombs and the fourth policeman: the Freedom of Information Act

Faithful followers of this website may recollect an earlier blog, “Bicycle bombs: a further enquiry and a new theory”, in which I called attention to the fact that, despite the absence of evidence that anyone-anywhere-ever had been killed by a pipe bomb disguised as a bicycle, Westminster police were impounding bicycles parked near Whitehall and Parliament Square on the grounds that they could be bombs. I ventured to describe this behaviour as paranoid.

Through the wonderful grapevine that is the Internet I have just learned of the case of a person of some eminence falling victim to this policy, – twice – and twice being compensated by the police for her broken lock.[1]

Completely independent of my inquiries into the justification of such a policy, she inquired under the Freedom of Information Act how many bicycle bombs had been discovered in London since 2002.

She ran into the stonewall known to the cognoscenti as an NCND reply. The relevant authorities Neither Confirm Nor Deny anything: they had determined they said “that in all the circumstances of the case the public interest in maintaining the exclusion of the duty to neither confirm nor deny outweighs the public interest in confirming or denying whether the information is held.” Yes. Read it again. It’s (sic).

The reply goes on: if they were “to confirm or deny whether the information is held we consider that it would demonstrate the level of awareness that the police and other bodies have within this specific area, which we consider would not be in the interests of national security because it would alert terrorists as to whether or not their activities have been detected.”

Let’’s pick this apart. I have broadcast appeals on the BBC Today Programme, the BBC World Service, and various websites for evidence about the number of people killed, worldwide, by pipe bombs disguised as bicycles. So far the number returned is zero. So, if there have been some unsuccessful ones intercepted by the police or intelligence services, the terrorists will know about them. It must be conceded that there might have been some, like the Detroit underpants bomb, that simply failed to detonate. But whenever the police discover what they believe is a real bomb the event is highly public. Neighbourhoods are evacuated and cordoned off and the bomb squad sent for. In the case of “suspected” bicycle bombs in Westminster the police simply take them to the police station.

Given that the worldwide success rate for bicycle/underpants bombs is, so far, zero we must conclude that the authorities’ reluctance to disclose the information requested by the above mentioned persecuted eminent person is being withheld for reasons of embarrassment. The authorities have no justification for confiscating bicycles. They are simply paranoid.

They have one further argument:  “to confirm or deny whether the information is held would increase the fear of crime. This in itself is an objective for those committed to facilitating the cause of terrorism.” Duh!?  They publicly treat every bicycle in Westminster as a suspect pipe bomb and then say that to confirm that they know anything about what is going on would make us more fearful.

To disclose what is almost certainly the truth (we can but speculate), that bicycles pose no terrorist threat, and are an environmental and public health boon championed by most other branches of government, would briefly embarrass the Westminster police, but would help to inspire public confidence that the terrorist threat is being confronted with a sense of proportion.

[1] The “person of some eminence”, while happy to have her encounter publicized, declined to be more precisely described because such persons must not be seen to be rocking boats – “not really the done thing”. Such nervousness highlights a limitation of the Freedom of Information Act: despite the Act much “sensitive” information that ought to see the light of day is still protected by bureaucratic boat-stabilizing solidarity. This story represents a nervous exception.

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  1. Grant Purdy says:

    Given that someone has been discovered with a bomb in their underpants, do you believe the UK police will ban underwear in the precincts of the Palace of Westminster?

    Of course, bombs have been concealed in cars more than any other vehicle, such as bicycles. Do you think we can expect the area around Parliament to become a pedestrian precinct – maybe walked by naturists?

    From a distance, this all seems ridiculous. However, the failure of senior administrators and those who look after our safety to seemingly not understand that the root cause of terrorism is not people riding bicycles and that to treat that risk requires measures that focus on treating the causes is truly alarming.

  2. Kim says:

    This removal of bicycles speaks volumes about the compliance of our political classes and their senior administrators. This is not about security, it is about humiliating those they see as others, based solely on their choice of transport.

  3. Ian Walker says:

    Although not very scientific, it’s interesting to turn to Google here.

    A general search for “bicycle bomb” gives 7780 hits; a general search for “car bomb” gives 1,600,000 hits.

    A news search for “car bomb” gives 2573 hits as opposed to just two hits for “bicycle bomb” – one of which mentions them only in passing, and the other of which refers to a bomb attached to a bicycle in Pakistan.

    Based on the reality of past bombing efforts, I eagerly await London’s car ban.

  4. Robert Davis says:

    I repeat and add on to some of the comments I made a couple of years ago when this subject was first posted.
    John Adams has made some interesting comments about the alleged threat from bicycle bombs concentrating on how the alleged risk is overestimated. The reasons why this might be so are given as (a) The use of worst-case scenarios and (b) Paranoia.
    I would like to argue that there is in fact another reason for this behaviour. This reason is prejudice against cycling and cyclists, combined with (and/or part of) a refusal by motorists to accept responsibility for the many and various depredations visited by mass car use on society and the environment.
    This prejudice may be called “car supremacism” (I use this term in my book “Death on the Streets: Cars and the mythology of road safety”), or “velophobia”(A term originally coined by Patrick Field), or what you will. The key elements of this ideology/prejudice are:
    1. Motorists are an oppressed minority. Car supremacism holds that motorists are prevented from their “basic right” to drive when, where, how and why they wish, by being compelled to pay too much money, obeying laws, and having to cope with obstacles like buildings and trees which have not (yet) been removed to allow them to drive where they wish.
    A key element of this system of beliefs is that there may well be some problems associated with mass car use, but these are dealt with by perceived regulation – although this is actually pseudo-restriction (again, I deal with this in my book). So we have:
    2. Motorists are controlled and regulated adequately, or if anything too heavily. The alleged regulations include a variety of what are actually pseudo-restrictions, such as the driving test, speed cameras, occasional enforcement of the law, payment of “road tax” etc. (I won’t here go into discussion about how these pseudo-restrictions fail to properly control the adverse effects of mass car use on society and the global and local environments – again, read the book!). This then leads inexorably on to a third element of this ideology which is the subject of this note, namely:
    3. Since motorists are being bullied all the time, it’s about time cyclists were as well. This is the reason for media coverage of the tiny handful of cases where pedestrian casualties are caused by cyclists, demands that cyclists do things which are supposed restrictions on motorists (like paying 3rd party insurance).
    One explanation of this phenomenon may be Freud’s notion of “projection”. This is basically the idea that we “project” our guilt for our failings on to other people: if we are secretly (“unconsciously”) aware that we are anti-social drivers, what a good defence (to use Freud’s concept) it is to pick on others, particularly if they belong to another road user group.
    However, this is not just a question of individual psychology. Motorists are very often completely unaware (even at an “unconscious” level) of the problems they are creating. After all, Government policy has been to accommodate or generate increased car use and car dependency, to tolerate (or exacerbate) illegal and rule-breaking driving etc.
    So an important reason for the bicycle bombs panic is:
    The dominant culture is suffused with background ideas about transport and car use. Part of this car supremacist culture generates a desire to pick on cycling and cyclists. This involves seeing cycling/cyclists as problematic and escaping alleged (but actually largely imaginary) restrictions and regulation. For this reason cyclists will be regularly targeted in ways which defy any rational explanation. In this case motorists see themselves as being controlled and regulated by a programme designed to stop car bombs: so we get an attempt to deal with bicycle bombs, whether or not they exist.
    (The concepts discussed above have now been further elaborated by sociologists at the University of West England with the idea of “The Fear of Cycling” and by Mikael Colville-Andersen (of http://www.copenhagenize.com) with his idea of “The Bull in the China Shop”.)
    One other point: the NCND response. This is opposed to what is supposed to happen under the FoI Act. Those of us in local government often have to spend considerable amounts of time answering FoI enquiries – how can these guys get away with not doing so? Imagine the fuss if the UEA climatologists refused FoI requests…
    Incidentally, I leave my bike near the ICA on the long hand-rail/ fence thing. I don’t find the ban inconvenient (I hope it doesn’t apply outside the ICA!) or on stands in streets just south west of the Houses of Parliament. The point about the ban is what it tells us about the culture we live in.

    Dr. Robert Davis, Chair Road Danger Reduction Forum http://www.rdrf.org.uk

  5. Peter Alexander says:

    I hate it when high minded journalists with an axe to grind have the ability to report what suits them without intelligent thought and any basic research. This policy has nothing to do with an attack on cyclists what an idiotic thought.

    Living in Sussex I remember well the two bicycle bombs in Bognor Regis and Brighton in 1994. I also read a book several years ago that described the IRA coventry bicycle bomb that killed 5 people in 1939. A brief Wkipedia search gives more information and incidents of bicycle bombs. Of course bombs can be planted anywhere but a bike parked in a sensitive area where there are numerous pedestrians is an efficient delivery system that can be easily left without arousing the suspicion of say a rucksack.

    It may be that it is very inconvenient for the people affected but if one of the blkes blew up, the author of this article would be very quick to jump on the bandwagon to critisise the lack of security. I think the agenda here is anti police and anti establishment. If you cant report accurately and in a considered intelligent way don’t bother, if you can’t stop then the BBC Panorama Team may have a job for you.

    In relation to Dr Robert Davies. Here is the facts. The way people work and live these days combined with a growth in out of town shopping has meant that people rely on cars to shop and get to work etc.. People are also generally lazy, so once they have their cars, they take to them because its easy. The growth in cars encouraged by this government because of the high tax revenue on fuel is the reason, this has just made the roads a hostile and dangerous place for cyclists. Its sad but its a fact that bikes are a victim of change. I grew up riding a bike, I still have two. I only ever ride off road now. In the 1980’s I would easily ride fifty miles at the weekend training for triathlons. The world is just different and like the horse and cart bikes don’t belong on roads anymore and people in their cars just recognise this. Its scares the life out of you when bike zips out of nowhere in front of you or on a bend in a country road. Most cyclists are as bad as at using them as people are at driving cars but in a crash the car wins and people in their cars know and fear this. There is nothing subversive about it and it just daft to suggest otherwise.

    I am unclear whether I have been promoted to the rank of high-minded journalist or you have someone else in mind.

    As I say above, my “basic research” thus far has failed to discover “evidence that anyone-anywhere-ever had been killed by a pipe bomb disguised as a bicycle.” I have been offered numerous examples but, when checked, they have all turned out to be cases in which bicycles were uses to deliver bombs, in panniers or baskets, and not examples of bicycles being converted to pipe bombs.

    Here, from the BBC Archive is a description of the Coventry bomb to which you refer: “The bomb had been left in the basket of a bicycle.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/wwtwo/countdown_390828_mon_01.shtml

    And here from the Independent (Tuesday, 16 August 1994) is a description of your Brighton and Bognor bombs: “A device containing about 5lb of explosive was left in Brighton and one with about half that amount in Bognor Regis, police said yesterday. Both were hidden in panniers on the back of blue mountain bicycles.” http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/ira-confirms-it-planted-seaside-bicycle-bombs-police-seek-tourist-photos-and-information-from-hire-firms-1383814.html)

    A pannier or basket is just as likely to be viewed with suspicion as a rucksack. The Westminster Police are confiscating naked bicycles on the grounds that they could be bombs. Not impossible, but highly unlikely. And given terrorists’ growing tendency to attack “soft” targets (e.g. Bali nightclubs, Madrid commuter trains, 7/7) acting on the suspicion that every naked bicycle could be a bomb would lead to the banning of all bicycles everywhere. JA

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