Fear is my chemical reaction

By Alice Miles (THE TIMES, 07/06/06):

I really hate finding myself on the side of the paranoid. I want to be on the team which coolly says, as clever, sceptical readers did in letters to The Times yesterday, that intelligence is probably wrong; that the police and Home Office cannot be trusted; and that we ordinary people talk rot about chemical weapons without knowing about that of which we speak.

I want to be in their gang. Not in Donald Begbie’s. Mr Begbie, who I dare say represents the views of much of Britain, wrote in alarmist terms to the Daily Express two years ago after an outbreak of the media heebies about osmium tetroxide, a chemical reported to be highly toxic and which was to be detonated as a huge “dirty bomb” in a busy shopping centre.

“On reading your article on the foiled bomb plot (‘Foiled: poison bomb plot to kill hundreds’), I was shocked to learn how easy it would be for a terrorist to strike at the heart of Britain,” wrote Mr Begbie. It “remains likely”, he added, “that we, as a nation, will fall victim to such an attack”.

The trouble is that Mr Begbie was right. Not about the specifics of a chemical attack — but to be fair to him, he had just read a story whose third paragraph forecast: “Apart from victims who would perish in the initial blast, scores of others would suffer asthmatic symptoms known as ‘dry-land drowning’ as they choked to death in agony.” Chemicals experts subsequently said that osmium tetroxide is not particularly dangerous and would be a pretty ineffectual weapon.

Yet Mr Begbie was right. We now know, thanks to July 7, 2005, how easy it is for terrorists to strike at the heart of Britain — if you have the will to do so and to die doing so. It is also easy, which Mr Begbie went on to point out in his letter, for people to obtain materials to make an explosive device. It is presumably fairly easy to get hold of chemicals as well. What seems to be extremely difficult, almost impossible outside serious laboratory conditions, is to mix the two to produce an exploding chemical device that wouldn’t simply send its attempted maker to meet his Maker first.

So logic suggests that I should “oppose” the police raid in Forest Gate last week as based upon flimsy evidence of an improbable threat; that I should view it along with other mistakes such as the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes as a dangerous step towards a police state, where the authorities act on fancy, whim and rumour against a cowering Muslim population (or man looking a bit like a Muslim who might have shaved his beard off and anyway it was dark down there in the Tube).

I don’t. I believe that if the police and MI5 had sufficient intelligence, from a source they trusted at least a little, that somebody might be preparing some kind of deadly weapon for imminent release, then they had an absolute duty to act upon it. And if they felt that 250 officers might be needed, so be it. And if a connecting door between two properties led them to suspect that the occupants of the two houses might be connected as well — well, that sounds sensible to me.

And if a gun went off in the confusion . . . this is of course the tricky bit. I think there is a danger that reactions to the shooting of Abul Kahar Kalam are coloured by the image of him in the newspapers: beardy Muslim; don’t they all hate us? I suspect that some of the public anguish that was present when Mr de Menezes was shot on the Tube last summer but seems so far to be absent over Mr Kahar is because Britain is becoming dangerously intolerant of Islam. So, again, I find reason to leap on to the clever Times readers’ side of the fence and condemn the injury.

But the shooting of Mr Kahar is a world away from the killing of Mr de Menezes, and not only because Mr Kahar did not die. Even if the shot in Lansdown Road was fired by an officer believing that he was acting in self-defence, rather than by accident, that is a whole motive away from aiming to shoot to kill a man who is running in the opposite direction from you and has done nothing to raise any suspicion about himself.

The mistake in Forest Gate was all too predictable in the circumstances: crowded house, police with guns, lots of noise, plenty of fear. This will happen again, if the police are doing their job. And it is deeply regrettable, and anyone wrongly shot must be compensated, but I don’t think it is any more than regrettable. It is not a big deal. We may owe Mr Kahar an apology and some compen- sation, and we thank goodness that he didn’t die. We do not need to turn the incident into any more than that.

In the raid in Forest Gate, you can see the new “threat profile” for potential terrorists, drawn up by counter terrorism officers after July 7, in action. The July 7 suicide bombers were British citizens, with strong links to British society — they had jobs and families — who met not in mosques but in gymnasiums.

The men in Forest Gate must have seemed to fit the profile precisely. They were ordinary family guys who worked at Tesco, protest the neighbours. And the ringleader of July 7, Mohammad Sidique Khan, was an “ordinary guy” with a wife and child who worked at his local primary school. The intelligence services have been criticised for being aware of Khan but ignoring him, probably for precisely those “ordinary” reasons.

So perhaps both police and MI5 are more likely to act on a single unsubstantiated tip-off than they once were. Perhaps they are more cautious about ignoring intelligence than they were. But I am certain, whatever the truth of what happened in Forest Gate — whether there was a struggle or not, whether the gun went off by mistake or not — that it was basically an accident. An unfortunate mistake.

Precisely because it was so clearly a mistake, anonymous briefings about it from the police are counter-productive, as they were after the death of Mr de Menezes. Exaggeration, justification or lies are not only unnecessary, they raise suspicions of some sort of a cover-up; the unnamed officers waging a public relations war should shut up. They are muddying waters that to most of us are perfectly clear. At least they are to me and, I expect, to Mr Begbie.