Fear or terror – which is the greater threat?

The Government has decided to post the UK terror threat level on the home office and MI5 websites. On 1 August, a new public system of alerts will replace the existing mechanism which, despite being secret, was widely leaked and speculated upon.

As with the existing system, the new (slightly simplified) threat levels will have specific meanings for various official and industrial organisations. Government, the security services, the armed forces and other elements of our critical national infrastructure will all have defined actions to take when warnings are issued, and will instructed on how to act when the threat is at a given level.

The difference with this new system is that the public have been made a part of it. Strangely, however, no guidance has been issued on how you should react to the different levels of threat.

When the measures were announced, a government official appeared on Radio Four’s P.M. programme to advise that (paraphrasing) “the public should be especially vigilent at all threat levels. The higher the level, the more vigilent they should be. However if the level is reduced, they should be no less vigilent”.

Got that? Good.

Claiming all this is a good idea, David Davis (Shadow Home Secretary) said that the new system will, “increase both public confidence and public vigilence.” However it seems more likely that the increases will be in public fear and public speculation. It is distinctly less clear how publicising the threat level will help to combat terror, especially if you don’t know what to do in response.

Using fear to exercise control is a well known and well used strategy. From the Inquisition to the cold war to modern-day terrorism, those in power have used fear to sell their policies. In this case, the government seems to believe you are safer when worrying about unexplained changes to unspecified threats than when debating and challenging their home affairs agenda, from which this system seems designed to distract. You are encouraged to consider what the threat might be, and then to fear it, rather than to challenge the government’s interpretation of, and reaction to, the supposed terror threat.

Given that terrorism is so fantastically rare, even in the prevailing state of international politics, we should all be suspicious of Government claims about unspecified threats.

In matters of security, everone has an agenda.