Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Terror Travesty

And so, once more, a high-profile counter-terrorism operation ends inconclusively, with the suspects released without charge. This time, at least, since most of those arrested came from Pakistan, the authorities can salvage some face by having them deported. The mere fact that they were suspected of terrorist sympathies is, after all, grounds enough for their removal from the country. Evidence, happily, is not required. Even so, this ought to be a huge embarrassment for everyone involved. And not just the police.

The raids on April 8th took place, we were assured at the time, only a few hours before they otherwise would have done had not Blundering Bob Quick walked into Number Ten with the names and addresses of the suspects tucked conspicuously underneath his arm. Gordon Brown himself publicly hailed the raids, unconcerned by any considerations of prejudice (perhaps he knew there was unlikely to be any trial, or perhaps, more likely, our rulers no longer care about unimportant trifles such as due process or the presumption of innocence). "We are dealing with a very big terrorist plot" he announced. "We have been following it for some time". Over then next couple of days, the usual police sources fed tasty morsels to the media who, as ever, repeated it without question though occasionally with embellishments of their own.

The terrorists, it was said, had been planning an Easter spectacular, an atrocity as bad as or worse than 7/7, and certainly involving more people. A nightclub was singled out as a possible target - as a "symbol of western decadence", needless to say - as was a shopping centre. The Sun's police source called the arrests "the most significant for some time":


Intelligence sources believe the Trafford Centre and a huge Manchester nightclub called The Birdcage were being eyed-up by the gang. And today it emerged that two other major shopping areas in Manchester had also been under observation.

The Arndale Centre and St Ann's Square — both in the heart of the city — had been visited by some of the suspects. A police source said: "Any explosive device going off in any of these areas could have caused carnage. These are among the busiest shopping areas in the North of England."

They had been visiting a shopping centre? That sounds mightily suspicious.

The Guardian, confusingly, quoted sources who denied that either the shopping centre or the nightclub were the target. Nevertheless, according to their report, "sources with knowledge of the investigation" believed that the execution of an "al-Qaida driven" plot was "imminent". It would be "highly ambitious", a "big attack". It threatened to cause "mass casualities".

Over the next few days more shocking details emerged. There were hints that some of the accused might have been seen taking photographs. The Mail "revealed" that "Members of the alleged Al Qaeda cell suspected of plotting a Bank Holiday terror atrocity worked for a firm based at Manchester Airport. At least one drove vans for a cargo company which has access to sensitive locations." One of the addresses raided, moreover, was being investigated as "a possible bomb factory". The Sun provided the rest:

COPS searching the homes of 11 terror suspects have seized bags of sugar — a common ingredient in home-made bombs...Scientists were last night analysing it to determine if it was a secret bomb ingredient.

Pretty thin stuff. And by the time the suspects were "released" yesterday few will have been surprised the investigation went nowhere. At most, any "plot" must have been at the very earliest stages of planning. Claims of an Easter bombing campaign were simply untrue.

We have been here before. We will go there again, I have no doubt. The Mail is now describing the raid as a "fiasco" and a "humiliating setback for the police". Inayat Bunglawala was denouncing the authorities on Radio 4 this morning, and again on CIF, accusing ministers of "smearing" the suspects. The allegedly independent Lord Carlile was being asked to review the operation. All this comes at the end of a terrible few days for the police, and indeed for New Labour.

But what of the media's own role in all this? Yet again, all sections of the press and broadcast media, from the Guardian and the BBC at one end of the ideological spectrum to the Mail and the Sun at the other, have been happy to regurgitate, no questions asked, whatever nonsense they have been fed by police and security "sources" or, what is worse, by government spinners. They must, surely, realise by now that all these "sources" have a pronounced tendency to exaggerate wildly both the strength of the evidence and the seriousness of the imagined plot. Of course, tales of mayhem narrowly avoided make for good copy. They also play into the hands of those who demand ever more draconian laws and ever larger sums of money to be wasted on "protecting" us from the negligible threat of terrorism.

The BBC reports today that the annual counter-terrorism budget has now reached some £3.5 billion - spent on such activities as redesigning public building to preclude notional suicide bombers in cars driving into them. How many lives have actually been saved by such vast expenditure? A few dozen? A hundred? I can think of much better uses for the money - especially on Budget Day when we were reminded in stark terms of the unprecedented size of the national debt. Why not take that £3.5 billion away from the security freaks and spend it on, say, cancer research? After all, it's cancer, not terrorism, that really kills people.

8 comments:

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

You're certainly right that its not a rational spending decision. The QALY for NHS spending is around £30k so anything more than £2m / life saved is irrational.

Of the half million or so deaths a year the major causes are circulatory and respiratory problems. Neoplasms, the category that includes the many different forms of cancers is the second highest cause of death, about 25% of deaths annually.

See the http://www.statistics.gov.uk/ site for details.

The reason the government has to spend so much on combating terrorism is that we live in a democracy. If it were a totalitarian police state then they could brush aside the flea bites of terrorists. Sadly the people demand that Something Be Done and our servants must be seen to be doing it or we'll throw them out and replaces them with others who will.

Edwin Moore said...

I thought it all resembled a Feydeau farce - have inflicted on others my vision of Jacqui Smith in a French maid's costume so you can have it too Heresiarch.

But would even Feydeau invent a plot device such as Quicky-Mart getting out of his car with the papers under his arm? We all of us know better than that!

And all those strong, very strong, indications that a major attack had just been prevented. What was going on there? As you said before, it can't be a conspiracy on the part of the govt - these guys are too dim. So an immense cock-up, and another terrifying indication that no one knows anything.

Wasp_Box said...

WML,

I think you have it the wrong way around (or are you being ironic?). This government constantly ups the ante about the risk of terrorism to justify the increasingly illiberal laws it wishes to pass. It’s all about control with this bunch and they receive the support of the fourth estate who lazily pass on everything they are told.

Mind you, this particular case is so risible that it's hard to see it as anything other than a pathetic balls-up.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

@Wasp_Box - I was giving my explanation for the lavish spending of money so irrationally. Passing laws is fairly cheap.

The current government certainly has a very mixed record combining some commendable liberal measures that got much criticism from the facile UK press with regrettable illiberal ones that generally the same journos rather like.

Still, it could be worse - at least there was some good in with the bad. In this last term the good : bad ratio has been rather disappointing I agree, their first term was their best and its been downhill since then. There is a rea; threat of terrorism by the way, those buses didn't explode spontaneously the other year you know.

The Heresiarch said...

Woolly, the question isn't whether or not there is a "real" threat of terrorism, rather whether the magnitude of the threat merits the large expenditure of money, all the illiberal laws, and the amount of government/press attention it enjoys. Your argument that there is public pressure for new laws/ expenditure etc doesn't hold water. Most people, given the choice, would rather the money were spent on their local hospital. The pressure comes from the top - from politicians making alarmist speeches, from security consultants wanting business. They could, if they chose to, downplay the threat, admit that there are a few terrorists out there but that people in this country have about as much chance of being struck by lightning as being blown up by terrorists, and stress the tiny number of terrorist plots when compared with other forms of criminality such as rape or even murder.

Instead they choose to exaggerate the threat. They may think that they get political advantage from sounding "tough" -but they could sound just as tough without passing new laws or spending huge amounts of money, they could simply make speeches of Churchillian defiance every time a bomb went off. Like Maggie did after Brighton. They are the ones demanding action, not the public.

Jonathan said...

Do you think they held on to them until Budget day to try and bury the news?

Wasp_Box said...

WML,

“There is a rea; threat of terrorism by the way, those buses didn't explode spontaneously the other year you know.”

I presume you’re trying to provoke me by being patronising but I’m not biting. Basically, I agree with the Heresiarch’s reply so I won’t repeat it. You might like to consider that, apart from the 7/7 episode, there has not been a credible terrorist action in the UK. The “shoe” bomber (yeah, right), the liquid bomb plot (utter bullshit) and a host of “Police Foil Terror Plot” headlines which disappear into nothing (and are thereafter ignored by the press).

The lovely Jaqui would have us believe that the police are constantly foiling dastardly terrorists but provides no evidence at all. I don’t believe her, do you? This is a pathetic attempt to control by fear but crying wolf doesn’t work after a while.

Tony McNumpty said...

The greatest terrorist threat comes from this new stassi government. They have done more damage in recent times than any terrorist group.