The Metropolitan Police have launched a new poster campaign clearly pitched to engender paranoia and anxiety in London’s population. A picture shows a wheelie-bin brimming with carelessly discarded toxic chemical containers accompanied by the smug caption:
‘These chemicals won’t be used in a bomb because a neighbour reported the dumped containers’
At the edge of the shot – to remind us what is at stake – a mother and child approach, totally unaware that such danger lurks in their community.
The scenario is clearly simplistic, as well as being inconsistent with previous government statements. Are these terrorists, so overcome by fanatical zeal they find themselves unable to dispose of incriminating evidence with necessary care, the same terrorists whose plots are so devilishly complicated that investigators supposedly needed 42 days to unravel their schemes?
For several years now, the Government and security services have been feeding us information about the ever-present threat to us from international terrorism in the shape of Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is apparently well financed, well organised and poised to strike at the heart of our freedoms. The danger is so serious that it necessarily requires a government and security force with increasingly wide ranging powers to defeat it. But their threat has also not materialised, and in 2005 the only significant attack on UK soil has not been successfully linked to them. So, with international terrorist attacks increasingly appearing largely a fantasy, and in the face of civil liberties protests against draconian and frequently misused police powers, the Met’s posters are more about maintaining the police’s might and authority by reiterating the precariousness of our security, and the necessary evil of strong policing, than about catching terrorists (such as they do exist) per se.
Appealing to our wish for security is a technique at which politicians are already well practised. The Government’s assessment of the current terrorist threat, made available in the name of keeping us informed, is ‘severe’. This ‘threat level’ has been published since August 2006 and has since been either ‘severe’ (terrorist attack highly likely) or ‘critical’ (terrorist attack imminent) ever since. With such an apparently unwavering crisis, one is reminded of the plot of 1984 wherein a state of perpetual war was used to justify the control of Oceania by Stalinist methods. Constant news of inevitable attacks feeds the assertion that threats are all around us and can only be tackled by strong government, whose actions are all ultimately in the common good. Furthermore, having over-exaggerated the security risk, continued absence of any attacks serves to strengthen their point, and ‘prove’ the success of their policies.
The social divisiveness of all this, and especially the current campaign, need hardly be pointed out. Given that it’s almost impossible to differentiate between a man wearing a rucksack full of books and a similar man with a rucksack full of explosive there will inevitably be a large number of people falsely detained following the actions of well meaning, but ultimately misguided amateur anti-terrorist sleuths. It pays to do a little maths; imagine that there are 8 million people in London and that amongst their number there are 150 ‘terrorists’. We know from this poster campaign that every member of the public is under suspicion. Let us suppose that the intuition displayed by members of the public in spying on our neighbours with the aim of catching terrorists is correct an incredible 99.99% of the time. Since our ‘test’ is very sensitive, our 150 terrorists are successfully caught, but it still gives a false positive rate of 0.01% which means that 80 000 people will be wrongly identified and possibly victimized. Such simple calculations and the collateral damage they imply appear to have been entirely overlooked.
The Police and Government have a duty not to engender panic as a way of achieving their own ends. Many people find modern life distressing enough without having to feel that they must be constantly on the look out for terrorist cells; the psychological health of society at large should be considered before the use of alarmist campaigns. Successful society relies on mutual trust and widespread suspicion encouraged by this campaign is more akin to that seen in communist East Germany than to 21st century Britain.
Update – this piece appeared in the Daily Mail 15 April 2009 With recent police activity, anti-terror adverts and CCTV everywhere no wonder we’re all scared stiff. Whilst I agree with much of what it says, it does read like the transcript of a right wing shock jock show. Here’s the Mental Health Foundation report he talks about.