War-on-terror games

What did London's mock gas attack hope to achieve?

Jennie Bristow

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Topics Politics

The mock terror attack staged in London on Sunday makes you wonder where society would be without role-play. Quite a lot more efficient, probably.

We could teach science or politics, rather than turning school into one big drama lesson; we could learn how to relate to our colleagues by working alongside them, rather than being sent on training courses run by self-styled consultants in interpersonal relationships. And we could trust in the ability of our emergency services to deal with the unlikely event of a real terrorist attack, rather than watching them flounder around coping with an imaginary one.

On 7 September, London’s emergency services finally got the chance to be involved in an exercise simulating a terrorist attack on the London Underground. The exercise was originally promised for March 2003, but postponed due to two catastrophes in the real world: officially, the war on Iraq, and unofficially, the limping recovery of the Central Line from a train crash in January.

Six months of waiting gave the emergency services plenty of time to spruce up their sci-fi equipment – gas masks, lurid decontamination tents, and thick green rubber suits that made medical staff eerily reminiscent of Mr Blobby. And it gave the UK media plenty of time to plan the photographs and headlines: ‘Apocalypse NOW’ cried the Sun. But beyond entertainment value, what did this exercise actually achieve?

The mock attack took place at Bank station, and was based on the scenario of terrorists using sarin gas in the Underground, as happened on the Tokyo subway in 1995. It involved hundreds of police, fire and ambulance crews, dozens of police cadets playing the role of casualties, and cost an estimated £500,000. The official line was that this exercise was supposed to test coordination between the various emergency services; and that it was not supposed to test the speed of their responses or to get a blueprint for how things actually would be in the event of an attack.

Well, that’s a relief. For if real life were like a role-play, it would take three-quarters of an hour for the emergency services to stop fannying around with testing the air and getting their kit on, in order to bring the first casualties to safety. Those in need of a stretcher would presumably be abandoned: in Sunday’s exercise, 13-stone dummies were substituted for severely injured casualties, because of health and safety concerns.

As many have pointed out, a real terrorist attack would not involve 60 well-behaved police cadets, but hundreds of panicking members of the public. As for coordinating the emergency services – this would surely be more difficult if they did not have several months and a stopwatch to plan down to the second how they would deal with the attack.

Which should lead us to suspect that Sunday’s shenanigans were not a terror exercise designed to learn some practical lessons from, so much as a PR exercise designed to bring the possibility of a terrorist attack to the forefront of the public’s mind (again), and show how well-placed the government is to deal with such an attack. Even on this level, it failed.

The public has become so used to the government’s wolf-crying antics in relation to ‘imminent’ or ’inevitable’ terrorist attacks – which, two years on from 11 September, have thankfully not materialised in London – that the response to Sunday’s simulated emergency has been an amused kind of cynicism. The fact that the emergency services came out of it looking rather slow off the mark and over-concerned with their own safety has not helped matters, either.

What it did achieve, though, was to highlight the gap between real life and role-play. Since 9/11, the UK government’s attempts to pursue the war on terror have appeared as a series of increasingly surreal gestures, motivated by panic and received with mistrust. So when the army was despatched to Heathrow airport in February, in a high-profile terror alert, it was quickly viewed as a cynical stunt designed to boost support for the war on terror/Iraq – a view compounded when a man was then found carrying a grenade at Gatwick.

The subsequent war on Iraq was viewed as a stunt before it started and, six cynical months on, it is viewed as a morally dubious stunt that also went wrong. (Although we should remember that the majority of the anti-war movement supported the idea of a UN-sponsored war – presumably that would not have been a stunt, but a peacekeeping mission founded on a sense of moral right.)

From panic-mongering over dirty bombs and anthrax attacks to stockpiling smallpox vaccines and planning evacuation plans for London, in case life begins to imitate the TV series 24, every attempt by the government to role-play itself into preparedness for terrorist attacks and thereby to win the confidence of its audience has increased the distance between politicians and the rest of society, and made the war on terror seem less like a real thing and more like an artificial stunt.

Which, in many ways, it is. Apart from the fact that to have a war on ‘terror’ (or even ‘terrorism’) is an impossibility – Where is the army? Who are they fighting? – the ongoing attempt to use the shock of 9/11 to cohere people against some non-specific enemy is never going to work. If what we are really facing is the threat of terrorist attacks by barely-affiliated suicide bombers using weapons not permitted under the Geneva Convention, against random members of the public rather than on some designated battlefield, then there is obviously a limit to what planning can do. With the best will and organisation in the world, the government cannot prevent every terrorist attack from happening – or make that attack have no consequences.

Fortunately, of course, in the event of a real terrorist attack the role-playing stops and real life kicks in. Given the scarily trepiditious character of Sunday’s terror exercise, this can only be a good thing.

Much has been made about how much more difficult evacuating the Tube would be during a busy period with frightened members of the public and the emergency services caught on the hop. Yet one of the most powerful lessons of 11 September was the ability of the public and the emergency services alike to rise to the occasion, to help each other and sacrifice themselves, to behave, not like a panicked mob but like a group of people finding practical solutions to real emergencies.

In the event of a major terrorist attack in the UK, we can assume that the public will not create a riot, and the emergency services will not be so hamstrug by health and safety concerns that they refuse to enter any dangerous situations and are prepared to rescue only dummies. You can role-play scenarios, PR and correct procedure; you cannot role-play heroism.

Read on:

Simulating leadership, by Jennie Bristow

spiked-issue: War on terror

(1) Apocalypse NOW, Sun, 8 September 2003

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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Topics Politics

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