Monday, 8 October 2007

Winning the Battle

Our lords and masters in charge of the global war on terrorism can finally chalk up a major success.

They may have reduced Iraq to a pile of smouldering rubble fought over by various groups of armed fundamentalists. They may have been so successful in promoting democracy in Afghanistan that liberal, smiling, Gucci-clad President Kharzai recently begged the Taliban to come and join him in government. They may have turned that nice pro-feminist gay friendly Ahadinejad into a hero of the chablis-sipping classes. They may have made suicide bombing chic in certain educated circles in the Middle East, and inspired young British graduates to go off and train for global jihad. All these, though, are by the by.

For in one important respect they have succeeded in getting their point across. They have scared us all shitless.

According to a new YouGov survey, carried out at the behest of the Mental Health Foundation, terrorism is the greatest contemporary fear. 70% are worried about being blown up by one of Osama's sidekicks, as against a mere 38% who expressed misgivings about global warming.

Terrorism made the majority of respondents feel powerless and angry. Sizeable majorities also felt anxious and depressed. One in seven claimed to be so worried they were unlikely to have children.

Fear of Al Qaeda is actually making people ill.

According to Clinical psychologist Dr Michael Reddy, terrorism threatened people's sense of security and emotional wellbeing. He said, "As social animals, we are sensitive to dangers from other humans that are intentional, such as terrorism. Accidental dangers, such as natural disasters, fail to motivate us in the same way."

These findings are deeply depressing. Whatever one thinks of the precise danger from climate change, there are few people left who still doubt that something is happening. There's at least a significant chance that by the end of the century this planet will have become more-or-less uninhabitable, at least as regards what passes for comfortable, civilised life.

By contrast, the chances of actually dying in a terrorist attack closely resemble those of being struck by lightning.

In 2005, the odds of being murdered by a terrorist in Britain were approximately one in a million. In 2006 (and 2007 so far), they have been zero. Of course, we don't know where or when the terrorists will strike next. But we do know that when the next attack does occur, all but a vanishingly small number of the preternaturally unlucky will only get to hear about it on the news.

In some ways the danger from terrorists resembles the danger from paedophiles. Both create an utterly disproportionate amount of anxiety. Both are experienced largely through the media, yet are of more concern to people than dangers they are actually likely to face in their day-to-day lives, like traffic accidents or heart disease. Both get blamed on the Internet.

Both, moreover, have been cynically exploited by a government ever on the lookout for more surveillance, more regulations, more ways of clamping down on expressions of dissent.

Thus the draconian National Children's Register ("ContactPoint" in the sinisterly ugly NewSpeak), which is being introduced next year, will contain intimate medical and personal details about every child in Britain. Accessible to an estimated third of a million officials, it is a security breach waiting to happen, a veritable paedophiles' charter. Yet it is justified in terms of protecting children's "safety".

Likewise measures like ID cards, absurd bans on hand-luggage or baby-milk on aeroplanes, restrictions on demonstrations outside Parliament, tracking vehicles and compiling vast databases of phone-records: all in the name of "security". Anyone who objects is a friend of (in Dubya's felicitous phrase) "the evildoers". In reality, of course, "security" has nothing to do with it. It's all about control.

Of course, politicians proclaim that the public are "demanding" measures against terrorists. But most of these restrictions aren't aimed at terrorists: they're aimed at us. And I can't help thinking that those calling for ever more controls are pushing at an open door. The perceived danger of terrorism gives the permanent government and the police a marvellous excuse to do things they've wanted to do for years, but never had the chance.

All this talk of terrorism has turned a once proud and free people into a population of frightened sheep. And like sheep, we are being herded, fleeced and enclosed in a pen.