‘Real life versions of Q’ (the fictional boffin from the James Bond films) are being offered government money (i.e. really my money) to develop technology to fight groups like al-Qaeda (the possibly fictional terror franchise), according to this bafflingly serious article from the BBC. But no, stop the giggling! It’s really real! There is (01-2015: or was, excuse the archived link) a Home Office unit called, Bondishly, INSTINCT! They have a strategy for it and everything… called CONTEST. I love the idea (described on the Home Office site) of ‘horizon scanning for technical threats’. It dredges up the image of INSTINCT blokes in lab coats swivelling the periscope on the SS CONTEST, looking for ruthless acronyms sailing into view with devices the like of which we cannot begin to fear adequately. Really, really though. ‘CONTEST’. Who sits thinking up this rubbish? Presumably people who describe terror threats as a ‘very real danger’, such as blogger Mark Dowe, whose oaty tones outlined the

‘very real danger that such terrorists will gain access to unconventional weapons – chemical, biological and nuclear’

[past tense ‘outlined’ because now Mr Dowe has a very real private setting on his site, possibly to prevent people gaining access to quotable material.] Setting aside an examination of the term ‘unconventional weapons,’ which might be extended to include items such as depleted uranium, say, or passenger jets used as missiles by actual real terrorists, this phrase highlights one of the most alarming tropes in ‘the war on terror’: the use of rhetorical amplification to distort reality.

People in public positions (ex-Prime Minister Blair, for example) often say things are ‘very real’, usually in the sense of there being a ‘very real danger’, or ‘very real threat’, or a ‘very real chance’ of something appalling happening. What they mean is genuine. It is not just one of your nebulous chances, it has a kind of concreteness that makes spending money on weapons and so forth very really necessary. What can ‘very real’ be supposed to suggest? Some things we imagine are real are not real? Fair enough, perhaps. But some things are real, some things are, like, megareal? Pffft. There is of course the implication that when people say ‘real’, and especially ‘very real’, they in fact mean ‘not at all real’.

Very real danger. As we continue to see, there are ‘terrorists’, people who act as though killing themselves or other people is a valid way of making a point… armed ideologues are always dangerous. It doesn’t make them any more dangerous to suggest they are a very real danger. Stop trying to make it sound worse than it is! If something is just shit, making it sound shitter is not going to help, and in fact the more you insist it is somehow more awful than awful, the less inclined people will be to believe you. Ask a shepherd. Doubleplusungood Alert, is it? I see.

Then there’s the serious expression people always get on when they use the phrase, which only compounds the insult. As if they have access to a better version of reality than everyone else, and they can convince you of their unique capacity to sort it all out simply by the subtle and sincere use of intensifiers.

“No, this is VERY real. You thought the Nazis were real? The IRA? ETA? Just playing at reality compared to these guys. They’re so real, they’re like a kiss on the lips from Slavoj Žižek… with tongues.”

How real do you want this? VERY REAL, PLEASE.

Still, you really can’t be too careful. In an INSTINCTive spirit of innovation, I’m developing a new anti-terror device. Based on a brown paper bag, it’s basically a brown paper bag. Every time you feel full of terror, you breath into it and it makes the fear dissipate.

I am currently brainstorming names for this device, but I believe it has already made a significant contribution to the fight against all those wishing to terrorise me with their fat-fingered throttling of the English language. Then perhaps when we’ve all calmed down and put the rocket-propelled nets in the cupboard with the swingball, we can address the very real threat of bombdogs.

There has been a very great deal of commentary globally on the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi , the Libyan man convicted of the Pan-Am Flight 103 Lockerbie bombing.  The whole thing was making me very melancholy, the sudden outpouring of fury, repressed grief and indignation.

Outrage from some apparently unconnected with anything, for the sake of political point scoring? FBI head Robert Mueller joined the chorus of people decrying the relase of the bomber (which, having dropped his appeal, the terminally ill al-Megrahi remains), saying it gave “comfort to terrorists around the world”.  Given compelling evidence that al-Megrahi had precisely nothing to do with the bombing, it might be suggested that his continuing imprisonment was providing terrorists around the world with such comfort (I picture them swiping their fists and snarling ‘Curses!’ in their lairs).

Mueller’s comments refer to his release ignoring due process such as conviction by jury, which al-Megrahi did not get, the case against him being heard by three Lords, Sutherland QC, Coulsfield QC and Maclean QC, and no jury:

Left to right: Lords Coulfield, Sutherland and Maclean

Left to right: Lords Coulfield, Sutherland and Maclean

 Al-Megrahi was convicted pretty much entirely on the basis of the evidence of Tony Gauci, a shopkeeper from Malta, described as ‘an apple short of a picnic‘, by one of the Prosecution, and allegedly paid quite a large sum of money by the Americans for his testimony.  Gauci said he was pretty sure, kind of, that he had sold some clothes to someone who looked just like al-Megrahi (except for being a good few inches taller and between 10 and 20 years older 11 years before he identified al-Megrahi.)

This was enough to do for al-Megrahi.  As the late investigative journalist Paul Foot notes in a totally absorbing special report for Private Eye (which is only £5.00 and essential reading):

 There was no evidence at all that he [al-Megrahi] had made the bomb, packed it in a case and put it on the plane at Malta, but he obviously had.


The report by Foot also pays particular attention to the previous suspects in the case, who had been Palestinians paid by the Iranians or Syrians, and who were dropped from the picture when the first Gulf War was about to kick off and the Syrians and Iranians suddenly looked like they should be onside.

 Dr Hans Köchler, the UN-nominated independent observer charged with evaluating the trial, said in 2001: 

…the undersigned has reached the conclusion that foreign governments or (secret) governmental agencies may have been allowed, albeit indirectly, to determine, to a considerable extent, which evidence was made available to the Court.


 All of which governments or (secret) agencies would have an interest in not being made to look like idiots by the outcome of a successful appeal by al-Megrahi, hence, perhaps, the very loud shouting now that the original “rightful” conviction appears to have been negated. 

270 people, meanwhile, remain dead…  with relatives left very little chance of actually finding out what happened, possibly due to further international political chicanery, with accusations involving oil deals being placed at a premium in the matter. As usual.  

 I admire the decision of Kenny MacAskill, made under extreme pressure. I hope that the real answers for why and for how the plane was destroyed might emerge, although I doubt it, both regarding the facts and with regard for any kind of adequate reason as to why such things happen.  

We seem to have a limitless capacity as a species for vindictiveness, in what drives some of us to bomb each other, or to wish some other similar fate on the people who do so, as if that will make anything better.  Decisions like that made by MacAskill give me some sort of minuscule hope we might be able to get over ourselves.