By Simon Jenkins (THE GUARDIAN, 04/07/07):
Don’t panic. Stay calm. Don’t play the terrorist’s game. Show no fear or sense of disruption. Don’t change your behaviour or way of life. Pass no laws curbing freedom. Just shrug and go about your normal business.Omigod! Now they are doctors! Wake the prime minister, round up the Arabs and order armoured helicopters. Stop the presses and clear the schedules. The fiends from outer Asia are cunning. They could be poisoning hospital drips. They could be lacing paracetamol and putting anthrax in Elastoplast. Declare another bomb “imminent”. Surround Heathrow with tanks, fortify Wimbledon, put blast blocks round Waterloo and ack-ack guns on Parliament Hill. Raise the threat level from critical to panic. On second thoughts make that totally hysterical.
“Doctor Evil”, cries the Sun, demanding we “Rip up the hated human rights act”. “Docs of War”, chimes the Mirror, discarding “innocent until proved guilty”. “Terror cell in the NHS”, shrieks the Express. Nor is the rest of the media much better. Fed by anonymous security officials eager to boast of their successes, almost all reports have contrived to link the bombs with al-Qaida, 9/11, the NHS, mayhem and martyrdom.
The public realm in Britain is in rampant retreat before terrorism, largely because politicians and the media feast on any story involving actual or potential violence. Politicians want to present themselves as calm and statesmanlike, yet visible, defenders of public security, as their poll ratings soar. Gordon Brown’s “strength” rating jumped 14 points in a Times/Populus poll yesterday. The media can revel in fear journalism, throwing all sense of proportion to the winds and filling pages and airwaves with speculation as to what “might have happened if …” and what “could yet happen unless …”, scanning that horizon so appetising to every news desk: the worst-case scenario. The BBC re-enacts a Pythonesque sketch with a white-haired boffin igniting a can of petrol in a sandpit and remarking that it could have been a thousand times worse. The word suspect has become synonymous with mass murderer.
The sanest person last Friday was the reviled Downing Street official who decided not to wake the prime minister at two in the morning to tell him of suspect cars in the West End. Nobody was dead. The police were on the case. The home secretary had been woken (a deed apparently vital to any anti-terror operation). Matters would be clearer by breakfast. Leave the poor man his sleep.
Gordon Brown was reportedly furious at not being disturbed. Hysteria politics demands that the prime minister be roused in the middle of the night. Under the old regime, Tony Blair and John Reid would have been jostling in front of the cameras, promising 10 new crackdowns by lunchtime. Yet here was Brown in the land of nod while his new home secretary, Jacqui Smith, was winning headlines for looking concerned and cool.
To be fair, Brown’s new team did not imitate Blair with a battery of instant illiberal initiatives. Three amateurish car bombs were dealt with by the public, police and security services, each playing its role with efficiency and bravery. As in the case of the IRA bombing campaign, my impression is that a richly resourced security apparatus is getting on top of the current bombing menace. It and the public can cope.
British national security is not remotely threatened by these bombs. They do not, as Blair loved to claim, “undermine the British way of life and threaten western civilisation”. They kill people and damage property. When last November Mr Justice Butterfield sentenced the terrorist Dhiren Barot to life imprisonment for conspiracy to murder, he felt obliged ludicrously to elevate a criminal into an Islamist hero and martyr by accusing him of “seeking the means to bring death and destruction to the western world … striking at the heart of democracy … and ultimately the whole nation of the US and the UK”.
Such Nuremberg histrionics are exactly what Islamist terrorism craves. The worst the present crop of maniacs appears able to do is kill people. This is deplorable, but death happens daily to innocent people on Britain’s streets, from which police are being withdrawn under Home Office pressure “to counter terrorism”. While the concept of the suicide bomber has given a new menace to the history of political violence, the change is quantitative rather than qualitative.
There is no doubt of the murderous intent of the cells operating in Britain. But they have no sensible answer in the villages of Pakistan, the streets of Basra or the Strait of Hormuz. There is no answer in the Ministry of Defence or in that liberal cliche, the hearts and minds of Britain’s Muslim population, which is as overwhelmingly opposed to them as the rest of Britain. The answer lies only in normal crime-busting, in patient and intelligent policing, and in accepting that every now and then a bomber will get through. Very few do and adequate steps are being taken to minimise the risk without the need for some new Draco at the Home Office.
Where there is no cause for confidence is in the response of politicians and public comment. Terrorism cannot work without the fear engendered by publicity and the clamour for revenge. The terrorist wants a megaphone for his cause, “understanding” for his grievance, and martyrdom for himself and his colleagues. He wants what the IRA demanded and British governments initially refused (before capitulating): the status of political crusader rather than common criminal. Today every statement from government, judiciary and press accords terrorists that status.
Nobody seems to know what, where or who al-Qaida is, yet the name is used to dust with global significance any bomb plot anywhere. Brown spoke of the car bombs as “al-Qaida-linked in motivation and ideology”. Why so glorify them? It is like linking a bank raid in the Old Kent Road “to the global mafia in motivation and ideology”. Why err on the side of terror rather than on the side of calm? Fear pumped up to the level of panic by the oxygen of publicity is precisely what the terrorist wants.
If Brown wants to turn over a new leaf in the campaign to contain the Islamist menace he should leave it to the police. He should have set the nation an example and been happy to remain asleep.