Crying wolf

I wanted to blog about my mixed reaction to the terror alert – mainly concern, but tinged with a bit of cynicism – but it seems that Mr Eugenides nailed it for me:

On balance I, like most others, would rather be safe than sorry. We’ll have to wait until the dust settles on this one before we can truly know just how close we were to disaster; sadly, it’s not impossible (though it seems unlikely) that this is another in a long line of false alarms. But in the meantime, our ongoing – and entirely justified – suspicion of the mendacious bastards that run this country might usefully be leavened with a healthy dose of gratitude at the vigilance of our security services. In this day and age, sadly, the state’s duty to protect its citizens is no mere philosophical conceit, but a day-to-day reality, and it is increasingly the security services, not the armed forces, which are at the front line in this [very real] war. It’s not paranoia if they’re actually out to get you.

21 thoughts on “Crying wolf

  1. tm says:

    There was a wolf, but people ignored it because they had been *lied* to about their being a wolf in the first place. Also pertient is this case surely?

  2. Squander Two says:

    > but people ignored it because they had been *lied* to about their being a wolf in the first place.

    I’m not convinced that’s the case here. The trouble is that a threat that is successfuly prevented is pretty much indistinguishable from a lie. Take the tanks at Heathrow: we have no idea what might have happened that day if the tanks hadn’t been there — could have been a completely normal day, could have been a thousand wounded. The question is: when a terrorist changes his plans and decides not to kill people today after all because it’s been made too awkward for him to do so, should the security services tell us? If they don’t, we think they’re achieving nothing; if they do, we suspect they’re making up fake threats. And then, of course, since their intention is to prosecute the terrorists, if they do decide to tell us, they can’t tell us much, so as not to prejudice the court case, and the sketchy vague details they give make us even more suspicious that they’re lying.

    I’ve not got any reasonable answer to this question.

  3. Gary says:

    Oh, I agree, but there’s been a pattern too: claiming that the tube bombers were unknown to the authorities and then discovering the security services had known about ’em after all; the (apparently fictitious) plots involving ricin or blowing up old trafford; the red mercury thing; the forest gate fiasco… there’s obviously an element of damned if you do and damned if you don’t with plots, but certainly some of the information released to the media and splashed over front pages has been suspect over the last year or so. Whether that’s spin, faulty intelligence or something else I don’t know.

    I think it’s important to remember that there’s a difference between plod and politicians, too. Plod might do the busts, but it’s the politicians that spin the stories. So cynicism about what we’re told doesn’t mean that the cops don’t believe there’s a legitimate need to act or that they shouldn’t act.

  4. Tony Kiernan says:

    Ricin is the anthrax of all this. (Remember how it wasn’t off the news late 2001? There’s many a conspiracy theory about that, but my favourite is that it brought the shoppers back out their homes – to buy stuff to barracade themselves in with – post-911) It’s a solvent used in printing processes. It is pretty likely that quantities can be found where there are illegal immigrants. (Have I said this before?) Is it easier for the authorities to rfepresent arrests in these circumstances as busting a terrorist cell?

    Whatever happened to the one in Edinburgh? They were in the flat I used to live in.

  5. Gary says:

    I’ve tried it here on FF and Safari and it’s OK. Haven’t changed the template or any settings…

  6. Squander Two says:

    The main problem, I think, is trying to use military intelligence information in a conventional civilian setting. Nowt wrong with the information itself, necessarily, but there’s a huge gap in the standards of proof required. Military intelligence works by getting a handful of people who absolutely know their stuff and trusting them. It’s the total opposite of a civilian court: rather than using impartial observers, they use people who have been completely immersed in their subject for years. They do ridiculous things like trying to figure out what the enemy are really up to based on what it is they seem to want us to know, assuming that they know that we will ignore what they let us discover and that therefore any really hidden meaning we may infer from the not-so-hidden meaning is probably intended by them and therefore also false — and they’re good at it. There can be major operations involving thousands of troops launched on the basis of a couple of very vague rumours, and there’s nothing wrong with that; it works. But, while it may work when it comes to stopping terrorists, it’s useless when it comes to prosecuting them or persuading the public and press that you were right.

    I remember one old MI guy saying that, in the Cold War, we launched huge operations against the Russians on the basis of information a thousand times iffier than the WMD info we had on Saddam — and that we were generally right to do so. The problem with releasing dossiers to the public is that the public aren’t used to these standards of evidence, and any attempt to explicate that gets derided as spin.

    So I reserve judgment on the ricin thing. Not enough evidence to convict doesn’t mean that nothing dangerous was prevented.

  7. Tony Kiernan says:

    >>doesn’t mean that nothing dangerous was prevented.
    Of course. Even if it was just some horrendous health and safety cock up due to not having the right facilities.

  8. tm says:

    >>doesn’t mean that nothing dangerous was prevented.

    You’re right in a lot of ways, but on the other hand we have had an innocent man machine gunned in the streets (how’s that for causing terror btw?) and had demonstratable *blatant* lies told about it within minutes of it happening by very senior police offciers, and several other incidents like what happened in forest gate recently.

  9. Stephen says:

    Well, there were some oddities at Forest Gate, like an insane amount of money in cash. It could have been that they were tipped off, and didn’t have time to get rid of the money as well, or that they were a cover operation, designed to be discovered so as to discredit the police.

  10. Gary says:

    There’s an absolutely superb cartoon on the leader page of today’s Observer which sums up the “wolf” thing and, like the best political cartoons, says more in a single image than any hack could manage in 10,000 words. Unfortunately I can’t find it online. Bah.

  11. tm says:

    >and didn’t have time to get rid of the money as well, or that they were a cover operation, designed to be discovered so as to discredit the police.

    Or on the other hand – they could simply have distrusted banks or have been invloved in some other, non terrorist related, crimal activity that generates a lot of notes.

  12. Squander Two says:

    I for one do not mind if the police, in investigating one type of crime, accidentally discover another.

    >on the other hand we have had an innocent man machine gunned in the streets … and had demonstratable *blatant* lies told about it within minutes of it happening by very senior police offciers

    If you mean De Menezes, I don’t think they used machine guns, but yes, quite. I gave some of the arguments above for not trying to deal with terrorists through civilian courts, but that is the major argument for dealing with them through civilian courts. That’s why I said I don’t have the answer.

    It would, in theory, be possible to construct some sort of legal court-like entity for dealing with these things outside the civlian syste, using different standards of evidence, rules of disclosure, etc, and that would effectively and realistically hold the police to account when they fuck up and kill innocent people while still allowing them to get on with their jobs. Anyone here trust the current government to create this entity?

  13. tm says:

    Oh, don’t get the impression that I was objecting to them discovering other crimial activity either – but what I do think is that doens’t mean that the ‘anti-terrorist’ operation should be counted a success or allowed to obscure the failure of inteligence that lead to it. (and Steven, yes – being taken in by a ‘cover operation’ as you suggest would still count as a failure IMO.)

    I was under the impression that they had used their little MP5 sub machine gun numbers – but thinking about it I don’t remember why I got that impression. Come to think of it if they just used hand guns managing to shoot him in the head seven times is even more disturbing….

    Trust the current government? I must admit that the most frightening part of the whole recent episode for me was discovering that Gordon Browns favorite yes parrot Douglas Alexander had somehow become transport secretary without me noticing ;-)

Comments are closed.