Playing politics with terror alerts
President Obama’s anti-terror advice to Americans in Europe was actually about rebuking European governments.
Somewhere, in what seems like a parallel universe, security men and women are working around the clock to track terror plots. As we go about our everyday lives, shopping, working and travelling, they are assessing our nations’ vulnerability to attack, shifting the terror-alert status to reflect the nature and extent of whatever threat they catch wind of.
It might surprise you to learn that, in this parallel universe, the current threat level in Britain is reckoned to be ‘severe’. In other words, a terrorist attack on the scale of 7/7 is apparently highly likely. Meanwhile, the US Department of Homeland Security has set the threat level to ‘elevated’, meaning there is a significant risk of a terrorist attack in America, too.
Every now and then, officials like to remind the public that this parallel universe exists and is keeping us safe. So on Sunday, Barack Obama’s administration alerted Americans living in or travelling to Europe to be vigilant against a potential terror attack. Apparently, American and European intelligence agencies have tapped into some unusual activity in North Waziristan in Pakistan, which is regarded as a hotbed of terrorist plotting. This was after a German man of Pakistani origin revealed, during interrogation in Afghanistan, that a group of al-Qaeda-linked Germans and Brits who are hiding in Pakistan have been discussing attacking the West with fellow terror plotters in various European cities.
According to the US State Department, there is evidence that plotters could be planning to use ‘a variety of means’ to target ‘both official and private interests’. So it has advised Americans abroad to continue about their business but to remain alert for possible terrorist activity; it has also advised them that they should be careful when using public transport and when visiting hotels, restaurants and other tourist spots.
Talk about mixed messages. A 9/11-style attack might be in the offing, but don’t let that stop you from going on holiday. You might come across terrorists with machine guns and bombs at any minute, so be alert. Washington’s vague message is that a terrorist attack could be imminent anywhere in the continent of Europe. It could happen indoors or outdoors, overground or underground, in quiet streets or in busy squares. So look out for suspicious bags, eye up your fellow plane passengers, and perhaps skip the visit to that famous monument – just in case. Or better yet, stay at home, lock yourself in and keep checking the Homeland Security website for any changes to the terror-alert status.
Of course there are some real threats out there, as the spectacular attacks in New York, London, Madrid, Bali, Mumbai and elsewhere have shown over the past decade. There could be more terrorist attacks in the future. But recent events – in particular the Obama administration’s terror-alert intervention into Europe – show that the terror-alert mechanism is not simply a practical warning system designed to tell people to look out for specific dangers; instead, the terror-alert system has become a political tool, used to send out political messages.
In this case, America’s warning to Americans in Europe demonstrated not only that the politics of fear is alive and well in the Obama era, but also that we seem to be moving towards a new stage in the politics of fear – what we might call the ‘imperialism of fear’. Washington is effectively using the alleged al-Qaeda threat to remind the Western world to get behind its ‘war on terror’. It effectively overrode European governments by communicating directly with Americans in Europe, forcing European leaders either to fall into line and to update their terror-alert statuses accordingly, or to try to distance themselves from Obama’s actions. This was more than a practical initiative – it was a heavyhanded political intervention.
Anti-terror alert systems reflect the jitteriness of Western societies, where the inference is that anything might happen, anywhere, at any time. Therefore we need to be vigilant at all times – sometimes very vigilant, sometimes only a little bit vigilant, depending on whether the threat level is bumped up or downgraded by those men and women in that parallel universe.
With each country deploying a different anti-terror alert system, the messages that get sent out are confusing. Britain’s system, like America’s, has five levels, ranging from low (an attack is unlikely) to critical (an attack is imminent). Under the Bush administration, America introduced a traffic light system, with terror risk levels ranging from low (green) to severe (red). France uses just four colours, while Spain has a system with three levels, numbered one to three. Invariably, the way in which these different systems differentiate between threats that are possible but not likely, likely but not possible, highly likely but not imminent and so on, is very confusing. These systems end up looking as reliable as reading tealeaves.
Perhaps that is why Americans ignored the Obama administration’s alarm on Sunday (US airlines flying to Europe have reported that it’s been business as usual this week). Because at this point Obama and his coterie merely sound like the boys who cried ‘terror attack!’. But though the Obama administration failed to instil a fear of terror in American travellers, his warning did set off a domino effect, with Britain, Sweden and Japan following suit and issuing travel warnings to their citizens.
The US is deploying the fear factor in the name of looking after its citizens at home and abroad. But this looks more like an attempt to get Europe to remember the need to back the ‘war on terror’ and to remind all citizens, American and European, that the terror threat is real and thus the war against it is legitimate. We really should be vigilant against the legitimisation of this imperialism of fear.
Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked
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