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Waiting for the inevitable

Europe's capital cities are terrorising themselves.

Josie Appleton

Topics Politics

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After Madrid, capitals across the world are preparing to be next.

The Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens has said that an attack on London is ‘inevitable’, while London Mayor Ken Livingstone says that it would be ‘inconceivable’ that the city wouldn’t be attacked (1). Meanwhile, France has stepped up security after receiving a threatening letter, and big cities in US allies such as Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Poland and Australia have been put on alert.

Political leaders are playing fantasy terrorists, trying to think of all the terrible attacks that might be launched on their cities. ‘It is quite likely they are planning one now’, said UK home secretary David Blunkett (2). Apparently terrorists might try to attack London from the Thames, using fast boats packed with explosives or a merchant ship carrying weapons of mass destruction (3). Concrete blocks have been placed in front of Parliament to stop a suicide truck bomb from driving into it, and reports claim that a bulletproof screen will be installed in front of the public gallery.

Sir John Stevens warns that it is not just London’s Tube and trains that are at risk, but also ‘buses, nightclubs, pubs and roads’ (4). We’ve seen TV news reporters walking down shopping streets, warning that there could be attacks in ‘a place like this’. Terrorists don’t have to lift a finger – cities are imagining themselves being attacked everywhere, all the time.

This climate is an invitation for cranks to have a go. The letter threatening French interests was by a group called ‘Servants of Allah the Powerful and Wise’, which nobody had ever heard of, and experts said that the letter didn’t resemble typical messages sent by radical Islamic groups – yet the French authorities said that they were taking the threat seriously and the government discussed it in a cabinet meeting (5).

The letter sounded like a spoof, threatening that ‘a heavy offensive will take place on the grounds of the allies of Satan, and we are going to plunge France into terror and remorse’. The group said that it was waiting for ‘three signs’ before embarking on this reign of terror – it had received two (the French National Assembly’s ban on headscarves, and a signal from Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahri), and was waiting for a third. When authorities are constantly anticipating the next blow, any oddball can set tests for the French government. ‘You have broken our rules, now you must DIE!!!’, cackle, cackle. The fact that real terrorists tend not to send letters before they plant bombs seemed not to occur to officials.

Four London embassies received white powder this week, and although tests suggested that the powder was ‘non-hazardous’, the issue still made the mainstream news (6). Anyone with a few envelopes and some talcum power can send Scotland Yard into a flurry and make the newspapers.

Meanwhile, the British Transport Police are running adverts on the Tube, warning passengers to be on the lookout for suspicious bags. Defence secretary Geoff Hoon said that ‘if something is strange and surprising, people really ought to warn the authorities of their concerns and not worry about being wrong’ (7). It is difficult to see what good could come from three million passengers being on the alert – false alarms and a general climate of paranoia are likely to be the main results.

A city designed around terrorist threats wouldn’t be worth living in. A place where every bag is a possible bomb and every crowd a possible target; where authorities are constantly issuing warnings and erecting checks and barriers, and people walk around looking over their shoulders. It is impossible to guarantee protection against today’s terrorism, which seems to strike at random without political aims or goals. Even if we were to live under a virtual state of siege, a determined individual who was prepared to die could get though somehow. As the saying goes, all we can do is get on with our lives; if an attack happens, we’ll deal with it as best we can.

Less sensible platitudes are currently issuing from the mouths of our leaders. The comment that a terrorist attack on the UK is ‘inevitable’ has been repeated numerous times over the past year, by Sir John Stevens on 4 September 2003, by UK prime minister Tony Blair on 21 January 2004, and by David Blunkett on 24 February. Another favourite is to say that a terrorist attack is a case of ‘not if, but when’, and this prediction of certain doom is often followed by a call for the public to be ‘alert but not alarmed’.

It is unclear what any of this means. How could the authorities possibly know that an attack is ‘inevitable’? How should one be ‘alert but not alarmed’? One possible function of these warnings could be to cover official backs, so that if something does happen they can at least say ‘we told you so’. It is difficult to see any use for the rest of us.

The only thing that is ‘inevitable’ is that these preparations for doomsday will waste our time and scare us witless.

(1) Pubs and buses are targets, Evening Standard, 16 March 2004

(2) London terror attack ‘inevitable’, BBC News, 16 March 2004

(3) Thames seen as gateway for terror attack, Reuters, 16 March 2004

(4) Pubs and buses are targets, Evening Standard, 16 March 2004

(5) France: Terror Threat Not Typical, Associated Press, 17 March 2004

(6) Embassies alert after packages found to contain suspect powder, Guardian, 16 March 2004

(7) Public told to be on terror alert, BBC News, 14 March 2004

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Topics Politics

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