Terrorism is a scary subject. That’s mainly the point. In fact, that’s more or less all it is. Cancer is scary too, but that fear is a bit more justifiable. Rack up the deaths attributable to cancer in the UK per year, and you can see where the fear comes from. In 2012, 161,283 people died from cancer, constituting 29% of all deaths. In 2005, jihadists killed 52 people and injured others. In other years, not so many. Average it out then, and it’s about 5-6 a year. All of the mechanism of hate preachers, jihadism, terrorist plots, people building bombs in their bedrooms from downloaded internet plans comes down to killing rather fewer people per year than fall off cliffs. More people die, most years, from being bitten or struck by a mammal other than a rat or a dog, than Daesh manage to kill in this country. If you have made it a few decades through your life without personally knowing someone who has died of cancer, you can count yourself fortunate. But I bet you a million pounds you don’t know anyone at all who has even been injured by a terrorist (You’re not allowed friends of friends. You’re not allowed ‘there was this bloke who used to come to our pub who had a mate who went to the same church as that bloke who Jihadi John beheaded’. You’re not allowed ‘my friend knew someone who was going to go to the Eagles of Death Metal gig at Bataclan on that night, but missed the Eurostar.’ And I’m not actually going to pay you a million pounds anyway.)
I raise it because most of the scaring gets done by us. Our papers and TV news channels can’t wait to work themselves into hysteria on behalf of the caliphate to ensure that we are so terrified that we’ll allow the government to do absolutely anything to our human rights and spend as much of our money as they want, in order to keep the risk of dying at the hands of ISIS down below that of being killed by being barged into by a cow.
Here’s the Times today. ‘UK faces “enormous and spectacular” terrorist attack says top policeman.’ You might not be able to read the article unless you’ve coughed up for a subscription, but I can’t blame you for being a bit nervous: My God, what are they going to do? Well, apparently, they are going to stop just killing policeman and soldiers in the streets, and switch to a ‘spectacular attack like the almost simultaneous attacks in Paris on a football stadium, concert venue, bars and restaurants in November last year’.
Am I wrong to detect a slight tone of admiration here? Was the Blitz described as ‘spectacular’? Isn’t that word reserved for firework displays and aerobatics? And there’s that ‘almost simultaneous’ – maybe he really is talking about a firework display: these jihadists, they sure can put on a show when they get their ducks in a row and get all coordinated. Is it unkind to reflect that the ‘top policeman’ stands to puff up his own ego, his powers and his budget, if he can only make people think that the nameless and unidentifiable jihadists are more sophisticated and organised than people hitherto thought (and let’s face it, we really did already know that they can pull off a bit of horror theatre when they put their minds to it).
It is interesting to wonder what kind of attack we might be talking about here. I personally find it quite unlikely that another ‘Paris-style’ attack will take place in London any time soon. After all, before Paris, it was called a ‘London-style’ or ‘7/7 style’ attack. Maybe the fact that in 2005 Al-Qaeda were in charge, and this time it’s likely to be Daesh taking the credit/blame, might make them yearn for another crack at the place, but isn’t it more likely to be Berlin, say, which hasn’t been hit yet, and where resentment against Muslims is probably running a bit high following Mrs Merkel’s blanket invitation to Syria to come and live in Germany. That would surely suit the terrorists’ ends much better. Yes, I suppose they might go for one of the few places in the UK that aren’t London, and, I don’t know, blow up York Minster or something, but I still think it would lose marks for originality in jihadi circles. Even hitting a major Muslim centre like Bradford wouldn’t be that new, because they’ve shown no qualms about murdering their co-religionists in the past.
But if they’re going to hit London again, maybe the ‘top policeman’ – actually ‘Mark Rowley, an assistant commissioner in Scotland Yard’, so presumably not quite at the very top – knows that it’s going to be qualitatively and quantitatively different: they’re going to send drones up and down all the high streets, shooting every tenth person; they’re going to set off a ‘dirty bomb’ in the middle of Soho; they’re going to put Legionnaires’ Disease in the Girling reservoir. Does that justify the scaring? Does that mean we should be more scared? What would being more scared mean that we could do about it?
Well, let me make one thing clear – I’m not suggesting there isn’t an issue. I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t be spending any more on preventing terrorist attacks than we currently do on preventing mammal bites and impacts. I get the idea that it’s precisely because of all work that Mr Rowley and his colleagues do which keeps the death rate down. I don’t doubt that there are probably hundreds if not thousands of misguided people who, for whatever reason, would love to blow something up or shoot people given half a chance, and it’s right that we try to stop them from getting that half chance. (Though in my wilder moments, I can’t help thinking that if we let them all do it, they’d soon get bored. No, all right.)
But telling people that something awful is on the way achieves only two things: it helps the terrorists by keeping people frightened (which is what they want, read the tin), and it makes people think twice before protesting when the government says it wants to read our e-mails and browsing history, and to try people in private, when any would-be terrorist of any expertise will be cloaking his internet activity by using Tor or a VPN, and when one of the main things worth protecting in our culture, and which the terrorists allegedly hate, is our system of open justice.
You’d almost think that the government wants there to be terrorists. After all, if there weren’t anything to be frightened of, we’d have to assume people were innocent. And we can’t have that.