The World at Large: A spy thriller.

You just know you’re getting old when things happen that in “your day” (whatever that term might actually mean) were in the realms of fantasy. To think that these days you can get little communication devices that not only allow you to talk to each other wherever you are, but can even plug into a global computer network and instantly tap into a wealth of information. (If you’re 18 years old, this probably won’t mean much, but trust me: in another 20 years you’ll be writing something similar about some amazing technology yet to be invented while your teenaged children look on and say, “So what?”)

Not so long ago, I remember watching James Bond movies, enjoying all the stunts and car chases and suave one-liners, but at the same time chuckling at the outrageous plots involving supervillains finding ever more inventive ways of killing their enemies.

Well, in a classic case of life imitating art, not so long ago, an ex-KGB agent, who defected to Britain during the Cold War, was killed in a very inventive, and initially baffling, way, although not, one suspects, by any supervillain.

The curious case of the radioactive element

The case of Alexander Litvinenko is straight out of a spy thriller. Indeed, at least one correspondent at the BBC has confessed that he’d previously only heard of polonium 210, the substance which apparently killed Mr Litvinenko, in a Frederick Forsyth novel.

It’s a pretty dramatic story. Litvinenko was taken suddenly seriously ill and rushed to hospital, where nobody could quite work out what he was suffering from. The finger of blame was pointed at thallium, but that didn’t quite add up. Only after Litvinenko eventually died (in what, it seems, was a particularly disagreeable manner) were traces of polonium 210, a radioactive chemical which needs a nuclear reactor to make in lethal quantities.

But it’s not quite James Bond. You see, any self-respecting Bond villain would have the polonium 210 transported to Britain by private jet. In this case, judging by the radioactive traces the police have been discovering, the assassins took the less glamorous option of British Airways.

What’s the half-life of Coca-Cola?

Now hold on there just one moment. They boarded a plane carrying lethal doses of a highly radioactive substance. Admittedly, it’s harmless unless you swallow some of it, but it’s still a dangerous substance and not the sort of thing you really want to have carted about the place as if it were… er, something not dangerous. Like, um, toothpaste, for example.

Except, of course, toothpaste is anything but safe. It is potentially a terribly dangerous substance. As is hand-cream. And lemonade. And contact lens solution. And baby-milk. All these things are so dangerous, you’re only allowed to take them on board a plane in small amounts, and in a clear, plastic bag.

Ah, yes — what a wonderfully crazy world we live in. Imagine the scene: sinister men in dark suits and sunglasses, their baggage sending geiger counters off the scale wherever they go, and when they check in they’re asked if they have any liquids with them. You can’t get a more damning insight into our security model than this. Even though in this case only one person has so far died in an attack apparently aimed specifically at taking him, Alexander Litvinenko, out (and can thus be counted as a resounding success), who knows what someone intent on causing widespread panic and mayhem could do?

Exercising the killers’ brains

Over the years, security has tightened, or at least so it seems. And it’s easy to see why: we’ve seen what can happen when terrorists infiltrate and use inventive means to kill a lot of people and traumatise a nation.

In the aftermath of that, and particularly with the fate of flight 93 in mind (where the passengers apparently stormed the cockpit and forced the plane to crash, possibly preventing the destruction of something like the White House or the Capitol), a friend of mine pointed out that now, if you wanted to kill a plane-load of people, you didn’t need to bring anything with you. Just beckon a flight attendent over and say, “I’ve got a bomb.”

That may not be the case any more (you”d probably just find yourself arrested), but in the hysteria of late 2001 it might just have worked. Far from making the lives of terrorists more difficult, we’re just giving them an opportunity to brainstorm once in a while.

And here is where our security model fails, and always will fail. It reckons without the inventiveness and ingenuity of people. They’ll find a way, even if it means reading Frederick Forsyth. Perhaps, just to be on the safe side, governments should ban spy thrillers. Or reading.


You can’t tell, but on this site, within each section, individual articles are given three-digit numbers, beginning with 000. This article is number 007.

Browse more archived articles