On 20 April 2011 I was invited to speak at a conference on “Critical Infrastructure Protection” at the Counter Terror Expo at the Olympia in London. The two vast Olympia exhibition halls were filled with exhibitors selling protection against terrorists: on display were lorry-bomb-resistant barriers and bollards, blast containment solutions, CCTV and covert surveillance systems, CBRN detection and protection, explosive detection systems, body armour, automatic number plate recognition hardware and software …… and much much more – click here for a full list of exhibitors. Counter-terrorism is, by all appearances, a vast and profitable industry, and one with an obvious incentive to stress the urgent need for its services. There were no exhibitors posing the question “Is all this necessary?”
In my presentation I argued for a sense of proportion – the precautionary principle allied to a vivid imagination can justify the denial of civil liberties and bankrupt any government. I cited the particular example of the police in London confiscating naked bicycles in the vicinity of Parliament Square and Whitehall on the grounds that they might be pipe bombs in disguise. I said that I could find no evidence of anyone, anywhere, ever having been killed by such a device – for previous postings on this subject click here.
This provoked a challenge on a website called Coldstreamers – a chat room for current and former members of the Coldstream Guards. It is refreshing to encounter people on the security frontline who are prepared discuss this issue. London’s Metropolitan Police have been conspicuously unwilling to provide a justification for their cycle parking ban in Westminster.
Someone who had been at my presentation said “I was at the counter terrorism expo last week and one of the professors said no one ever in the world had been killed by a bomb disguised as a bike and I’m sure he is wrong. Can any one help?”
Such help was not forthcoming. After about 400 hits one respondent familiar with the evidence said “Has it [a pipe bomb disguised as a bicycle] actually killed anyone? I think not.” And another denounced the police reaction as “a totally paranoid act.” After a further week and more than another 100 views without further comment this appears to be the final Coldstreamers’ word on the subject.
One definition of paranoia is “an excessive suspicion of the motives of others”. Judged by the actuarial evidence – no evidence has so far been produced of anyone in the world having been killed by a pipe bomb disguised as a bicycle – the police reaction is paranoid. The reaction is also arbitrary. It is possible, if difficult, to disguise a pipe bomb as a bicycle. But there are many other easier ways, from backpacks and briefcases to cars and lorries, to create a much larger explosion. If bicycles are to be banned from Parliament Square and Whitehall why not all the other places in London where large numbers of people congregate? The paranoid fear of bicycles carried to its logical conclusion would eliminate bicycles as a mode of transport.
Proving a negative is always difficult. The quest for evidence that a pipe bomb disguised as a bicycle has ever harmed anyone continues. But whether, in the whole history of terrorism, bicycle-pipe bombs have killed one person, or two, or a few, or no one, it still seems fair to characterize banning the parking of naked bicycles in Westminster as arbitrary and paranoid.