Sunday, October 10, 2010

The European Terror Alert

Simon Jenkins of the Guardian takes on the British Government's increase of the terror threat from "substantial" to "severe":

I hesitate to tempt fate, but this dog's dinner of nouns and qualifiers cannot mean anything to the general public. Rather than describing a menace to the British state, the words are more a comment on English teaching in schools. They are verbal garbage, reflecting a habit of bureaucratic mind and relieving public services – airport security, railway guards, traffic police – of the need for courtesy. They just want to keep the public scared and paying taxes.

Travelling on a First Great Western train nowadays is like entering Guantánamo – a cacophony of repetitive announcements telling passengers to protect their belongings at all times and inform the police if they see anything suspicious. Likewise the fatuous frisking of old ladies at airports, the half-hearted searching of bags in shops, the reams of safety literature pouring from the nation's printers. It is the white noise of state fear. . . .

To see what is happening we probably need to return to the old journalistic maxim, follow the money. There is now an extensive police and industrial lobby in Britain dependent for its resources on maintaining a high level of public fear. The lobby thrives on its own failures. The incidents in America on 9/11 (2001) and in London on 7/7 (2005) saw the greatest ever peacetime growth in spending on security. Unlike most forms of public spending, this one could by its nature demand cash with menaces and with no account of value for money.

The fear must be sustained if the resources are to flow. The west has been starkly free of terrorist "attacks" over the past decade. The lobby may plead this proves the money was well spent, but the staggering cost of anti-terrorism since 9/11, including two foreign wars, must have surpassed all actuarial calculation of western lives saved thereby.

Hardly a month goes by without someone in authority reminding us to expect another attack imminently. I have lost count of statements from MI5, the police and other experts that an attack is a matter of "not if, but when". The attacks never occur, or are brilliantly thwarted, like the one reportedly prevented this week, apparently by dropping bombs from drones on Pakistani villages. What is noticeable is that the tempo of such threats increases immediately before Christmas and when the security lobby is involved in a fight over money, as now.

I try to resist the lure of paranoia, but I think there is a lot in what Jenkins says. Our counter terrorism budgets have reached levels as crazy as the explanations being offered of why we need to spend billions and sacrifice thousands of lives fighting over barren mountains on the other side of the world. I think this enormous expenditure of money and effort flows from two causes: the fear of politicians that if another attack comes they will blamed for not doing enough to stop it, and the greed of security services. All government agencies think they need more money to do their jobs, and the security agencies have discovered that as long as people fear terrorism enough, they can get the millions they dream of. It is a disastrous situation for a democracy, and the only way to end it is for the people to stand up and insist that we are willing to bear the risk.

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