The UK government's warnings are about being seen to tackle terrorism.
‘Barely a day goes by without some new piece of intelligence about a threat to UK interests’, said British prime minister Tony Blair on 11 November 2002, as he warned Britons to be ‘vigilant’ but ‘not panicky’ about a potential al-Qaeda attack.
According to Blair, ‘Today’s terrorist knows no bounds – of geography, of inhumanity, or of scale’. ‘They are looking for ever more dramatic and devastating outrages to inflict upon [us]’, he said, calling the new threat to the world ‘extremism driven by fanaticism’ (1).
So is Britain threatened by an imminent terrorist attack, and if so how should we deal with it? You won’t find the answers to those questions in Blair’s speech – because the New Labour government seems more interested in being seen to act against terrorism, rather than offering practical information that might allow people to protect themselves against potential attack.
According to one government source, Blair kept his information (what information?) about potential threats as ‘general as possible’, because his speech was concerned ‘with demonstrating [a] commitment to tackling terrorism’ rather than with alerting people to ‘a specific act’ (2).
Blair highlighted a number of potential attack scenarios – claiming that ‘roads, railways, airports, stations, shopping centres, factories and military installations’ are all potential targets – but he didn’t advance a single security measure or any solid information. As one newspaper headline put it: ‘Blair warning reflects fears without facts.’ (3)
He did, however, talk up the government’s ‘commitment to security’, pointing out that ‘government has to ensure that we take whatever security measures we can, consistent with the desire of people to live normal lives’.
Blair’s warnings were all about the presentational over the practical. One report pointed to the ‘dilemma’ faced by the government. ‘If the public responds by staying at home, the terrorists have won’, it said. ‘Yet if a terrorist attack happens, then the public asks “why didn’t you warn us?”.’ (4)
Blair referred to this ‘dilemma [of] reconciling warning people with alarming them, [and] taking preventive measures without destroying normal life’. He claimed that the government had to be seen to be taking ‘action against the terrorists’, without ‘producing chaos and disorder’. Blair’s speech was about ‘addressing a dilemma’ and ‘striking a balance’, rather than offering anything resembling information or an anti-attack strategy.
This seems to have been the problem with the first draft of home secretary David Blunkett’s terror warning – it was too specific. On the morning of 8 November 2002 Blunkett issued a statement about potential terrorist attacks, but it was withdrawn two hours later and replaced with a toned-down version.
In the first, Blunkett listed seven security measures with which the government could tackle terrorism, including ‘tightening aviation security’ and ‘enhancing legislation in respect of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons’ (5). In version two that list had been whittled down to a promise to ‘give our agencies the support and resources they need to do their job’ (6).
In version one, Blunkett said that ‘British citizens remain at risk from both international and Irish terrorists’. By version two that had become, ‘British citizens remain at risk from international terrorism and that related to the affairs of Northern Ireland’ (maybe someone had taken offence at the use of the word ‘Irish’?).
In the first version, Blunkett said ‘maybe the [terrorists] will try to develop a so-called dirty bomb or some kind of poison gas… The bottom line is that we simply cannot be sure’. But even these wild and vague claims seem to have been considered too specific. In the revised version, all talk of bombs and gas had dissipated, replaced with the advice to ‘keep an eye out for suspect packages or people acting suspiciously at stations or airports’.
All Blunkett’s suggested measures, and even his questionable information, were edited out, leaving the revised version of his statement to spell out the people and the government’s ‘shared understanding of the nature of these new terrorist threats, and [our] shared commitment to facing up to them’.
For a government to give people specific warnings about terrorist attacks is one thing. For a government to voice its vague concerns about potential attacks that could happen anytime anywhere as a way of demonstrating its ‘commitment’ and its keenness ‘to strike a balance’ in the terrorism debate – that’s a different matter entirely.
Such announcements are only likely to make people feel less secure – particularly when concerned with exaggerated fears about weapons of mass destruction, dirty bombs and lethal gases. Blair admits that only some of the intelligence he receives is reliable, while ‘some of it may be disinformation…some of it will be gossip’. But he still makes it all part of his supposedly principled stand against terrorism.
Blair got so carried away with the general over the specifics that, even though he couldn’t articulate when, where or how an attack might take place, he claimed there was a ‘new type of war’ against Britain, which ‘will test not just our ability to fight, but our character, our resilience and our belief in our own way of life’. He got all that from some vague warnings about potential terrorist strikes?
Of course Blair can’t just conjure up a new Blitz spirit to suit his newfound focus on homeland security. As Guardian columnist Zoe Williams points out: ‘[Y]ou cannot manifest Blitz spirit on demand – you have to at least have an idea about what grim reality you’re grinning and bearing before you can grin and bear it….’ (7).
Blair’s ‘new Blitz spirit’ seems to be as lacking in substance as his evidence of a terrorist threat against Britain.
Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.
America the vulnerable, by Brendan O’Neill
(1) Blair urges ‘balance’ in war on terror, BBC News, 11 November 2002
(2) Blair warning reflects fears without facts, Guardian, 12 November 2002
(3) Blair warning reflects fears without facts, Guardian, 12 November 2002
(4) Blair warning reflects fears without facts, Guardian, 12 November 2002
(5) Text of terror warning, BBC News, 8 November 2002
(6) Terror warning: revised statement, BBC News, 8 November 2002
(7) Grin and bear what exactly?, Guardian, 12 November 2002
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