It is said that there was, or is, a condom manufacturer which retailed its products in three sizes: Jumbo, Colossal and SuperColossal. It is thus with Home Office terror alerts, which start at "substantial", move up to "severe" and end up at "critical" - which is supposed to mean that the terrorists are about to strike, but which actually means that they just did. For appearances' sake, there are two lower categories, but they would imply that the security services had done their job so well they deserve to have their budget slashed and half their staff redeployed to analysing traffic-flow data. Effectively, therefore, a "substantial" terror risk is as low as it goes.
Here's how Duncan Gardham reports it in the Telegraph:
It is the third of five threat levels and means the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, a unit within MI5, believes that the danger of an attack is now "highly likely" rather than a "strong possibility".
Actually, it's the other way round: an attack is now "a strong possibility" whereas previously it had been "highly likely". But the very fact that such a mistake can be made does rather show how meaningless this official language is. "Highly likely" and "a strong possibility" are virtually synonymous expressions: what they both mean is that the spooks think they've got the situation under control, but the government wants cover its back. And to keep us in a state of fear and dependence. It's a bit like reclassifying drugs: nothing to do with the scientific evidence, everything about "sending a message".
The message, though, is distinctly mixed. If they really wanted to demonstrate that the danger from terrorism had diminished, they could start dismantling some of the security theatre that has made air travel almost unbearable and that each autumn turns party conference venues into something resembling one of Edward I's Welsh castles. More likely, they're lowering the threat level now so that they can put it up again later. The Telegraph quotes John Yates, Scotland Yard's counterterrorism boss: "It is logical because we cannot keep having it high unless the threat is there."
Of course, today's move doesn't mean that a terrorist attack won't happen. Possibly the reverse. The last time the threat level was reduced this low was in 2005, a month before the Tube bombings. It is in the very nature of terrorist incidents of this type to be unpredictable, almost random: there are too few potential terrorists, and they have too little in the way of resources, to mount bombings on the scale of Madrid or London with anything other than extreme rarity. As for 9/11, that was a once-in-a-lifetime event, the Al Qaeda equivalent of the Apollo moonshot: spectacular but unrepeatable (despite what was said at the time). Some credit is clearly due to the success of counter-terrorist operations in foiling some plots at an early stage - but they have only ever foiled possible plots, potential plots, plots that probably wouldn't have gone anywhere.
Compare Indonesia, which has just suffered the double bombing of two major hotels, or India, or above all Pakistan: countries that must be ever-vigilant but yet cannot prevent repeated deadly attacks. Why are they so vulnerable? Not, surely, because of unsophisticated or lackadaisical security services. Rather, because these countries are on the frontline. Islamist terrorism in Western countries is really a form of seepage. Despite the alarmist talk by governments and others ("they hate our way of life", "they want to impose a universal Caliphate on the whole world") those terror organisations that are well organised enough to present a real and constant danger are more interested in attacking targets closer to home. What we are left with, in the main, are home-grown enthusiasts, usually self-motivated, shopping for bomb ingredients in Boots.
So what is this downgrading of the threat level all about? The BBC report quotes "terror expert David Capitanchik" as suggesting that the explanation may be a purely political attempt to justify its claim that the best place to fight domestic terror is Afghanistan. "I think the government, and possibly the security services, want to show.... that somehow, despite the loss of soldiers, it's being successful - it is actually reducing the threat." Wow. I'd like to think I could aspire to that level of cynicism - but then I'm not a "terror expert", and I'm not being approached for a quote from the BBC. The Beeb's general policy is to follow the official line which, in this case, is that "there remains a real and serious threat against the United Kingdom and I would ask that the public remain vigilant" and that "the decision to change the threat Level is taken ... independently of Ministers".
We can take it, then, that everyone agrees that the whole "threat level" thing is a PR job. I'm not quite convinced by the Afghanistan theory, though, if only because no-one believes our presence there has much to do with domestic terrorism anyway - it's just the latest excuse. My guess is that it has something to do with swine flu.
As tends to happen nowadays, the flu "pandemic" is being addressed by the government as a security concern as much as a health problem - or more. (It's instructive, by the way, how terrorism has become the yardstick by which all threats are measured, even entirely different or vastly bigger threats, so large does it loom in political and media discourse.) Alan Johnson told Andrew Marr yesterday morning that the virus is "a worse threat than terrorism", and that "the whole Cobra machinery" has swung into action. The disruptive effects will certainly be far beyond it - even if it kills relatively few people. Whether or not it destroys the recovery (or at least provides the government with a convenient excuse as to why there isn't one) it will cost a fortune. We're told, too, that criminals will be let off lightly as police and lawyers lie in bed sneezing. The fight against terror just isn't so much of a priority when there are real problems to worry about. Come to think of it, airports might be compelled to streamline their security checks.
Let's hope the terrorists, and would-be terrorists, all contract swine flu. Otherwise there could be trouble.