Alex Massie

Complacency & Terrorism

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David Aaronovitch's column in the Times today is a curious beast indeed. Some sub-editor has given it the headline Complacency has crept up on us (yet again) which seems curious since the partially-successful prosecution of the men accused  - and guilty - of plotting to use "liquid bombs" to blow up transatlantic airliners would seem to suggest that complacency has not in fact crept up on us and that, quite rightly, the security services are doing the job they're charged with.

Now Aaronovitch is not responsible for the headline, nor for the sub-deck arguing that No amount of handwringing about civil liberties should distract us from the very clear and present danger of terrorism.  Nonetheless, this doesn't seem an unfair summary of his column. Yet why must concerns about civil liberties be considered "handwringing" and upon what evidence is it presumed that it is impossible to be concerned by the terrorist threat and by the erosion of important civil liberties?

Aaronovitch begins his column:

Dick Cheney is a hard man to like. And on to his shoulders he has had loaded the various guilts with which we now regard aspects of the War on Terror: Guantánamo Bay, waterboarding and, by association, Abu Ghraib. Of course, the former US Vice-President has helped in this convenient location of sin by defending, when all else are silent, the indefensible.

The first sentence wants to suggest that, despite everything, Dastardly Dick might have a point. But if Cheney has been defending the indefensible then isn't it sensible to dislike him?

Now Aaronovitch is obiously correct to argue that "the passage of time with few successful terrorist attacks since, seems to have changed our calculation of risk." But isn't this also a sensible reaction? That is, that actions that might have been understandable, no forgivable, in the awful aftermath of 9/11 cease to be appropriate nearly eight years later when we have a better, if still incomplete, awareness of the nature of the threat?

In fairness, Aaronovitch recognises this. He then writes:

But for governments and their agencies, the problem is different. What 9/11 represented for them was a catastrophic failure to predict, intercept or prevent a massive attack...

Such impotence is frightening, and provides the context within which governments — our own and the Americans — have sought (sometimes badly) to maximise their chances of intercepting possible attackers. We need to remember the dilemmas they face. In June the senior law lord, Lord Phillips of Worth Matravers, in criticising control orders, talked of the “slow creep of complacency” when it came to maintaining proper legal standards in the case of terrorist suspects. Clearly, he’s right, but can complacency creep also affect our attitude towards preventing or dealing with terrorist attacks? Because I wonder whether that isn’t happening right now. Well, yes, but don't most people recognise the dilemmas the security services face? And while we hope that their efforts will be successful don't most people recognise that, yes, it is, horribly, unlikely that they will have a 100% success rate.

But who is complacent about the terrorist threat? Not, I assume, the security services and not, I assume, the powers-that-be in Whitehall. Which leaves the general public. Is Aaronovitch suggesting that there'd be some benefit if the public went through life in a heightened state of fear? Or is he suggesting that we should worry a little less about means and concentrate instead upon ends?

The implication of his column is that we're in danger of making it too difficult for the security services to do their job; that we spend too much time fretting about the methods needed on the "dark side" of counter-terrorist operations while failing to properly imagine the horrific consequences of a successful terrorist attack.

As I say, this seems odd in the light of a partially-successful prosecution. We should indeed be aware of the terrorists' malevolent, murderous intent. But an appreciation of their intentions need not be accompanied by an inflation of their capabilities. That's not an argument for complacency, but nor does it mean that any and all counter-terrorism methods are legitimate.

I think Aaronovitch recognises this, but it is nonetheless possible to be concerned by terrorism and civil liberties and conclude that our system of checks and balances has, in general though with room for criticism on both sides of the argument, served us pretty well. So far. And, hopefully, will in the future too.

A realistic - perhaps even pessimistically realistic - view of the problem might suggest that, eventually, the terrorists will get lucky again. And when or if that happens there'll be plenty of voices shrieking that more should have been done to prevent it and if only we hadn't listened to the handwringers it might have been prevented and so on. There'll be plenty of "serious" people saying they told us so and the balance of policy will tilt again. But right now, cautiously and perhaps wrongly, I'd suggest that we're more or less in the right place, not least because since a "War on Terror" has no obvious end point or moment of victory you cannot have the civilian population on a permanent war footing.

So, yes, this trial reminds us of the threat, but the successful security operation and prosecution also reminds us that the law matters too.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleSocietyterrorism