Is London still stressed out about 7/7?

A survey claiming that 11 per cent of Londoners were ‘substantially stressed’ by the bombings raises more questions than answers.

I have an interest to declare. My partner is one of those who lost a good friend in the terrorist bombings in London on 7 July 2005. Miriam Hyman was on the bus at Tavistock Square when the youngest of the suicide bombers, Hasib Hussain, detonated his device about an hour after the three other attacks on the London Underground.

Is my partner affected? Undoubtedly. Bereavement is painful, and it is felt individually in a way that few others can appreciate. Loss hurts. And loss of a young life brought about by such an ultimately pointless act as 7/7 can hurt even more (1).

So does my partner (a) feel upset when reminded of what happened; (b) have repeated thoughts about what happened; (c) have difficulty concentrating; (d) have trouble falling asleep; or (e) feel irritable or angry? Definitely. Yet now, answering ‘yes’ to having experienced any of these feelings in the aftermath of 7/7 indicates the presence of ‘substantial stress’, according to a team of researchers at King’s College and University College, London, in a survey conducted shortly after the 2005 attacks and now published in full.

Never mind the fact that most of us could answer ‘yes’ to at least (c), (d) and (e) every now and then – the conclusions of the research team, as presented in the British Journal of Psychiatry and reported in the Sun newspaper yesterday, are held to indicate that 11 per cent of the British population have suffered from persistent and substantial stress as a result of 7/7 (2).

The researchers first telephoned 1,010 Londoners 11 to 13 days after the 7/7 bombings and asked them about their feelings and thoughts; they then carried out a follow-up survey of 574 Londoners between seven and eight months after the bombings. In the first survey, they found that around a third of respondents were suffering from ‘substantial stress’ as a result of the bombings; by the time of the second survey, that had fallen to around 11 per cent of Londoners.

There seems to be a definitional problem in some of the language used. How upset does one need to be in order to be suffering from ‘substantial stress’? Using non-specific terms to explain an ill-defined concept like ‘stress’ is a formula that allows one to conclude pretty much anything, according to prevailing prejudices. The researchers themselves are not unaware of this problem. In their paper they argue: ‘It is reasonable to question whether our measure of substantial stress might have produced an artificially inflated prevalence estimate.’ (3) Tucked away in the ‘Limitations’ section of the paper, this caveat did not make the headlines.

If respondents answered yes to any of the questions (a) to (e) listed above, then they were judged to be suffering from ‘substantial stress’. Most said yes to the first question: ‘Do you feel upset when something reminds you of what happened?’ If you remove the yes responses to this question from the overall survey, then the percentage number of those who suffered from persistent and substantial stress falls from 11 per cent of the population to five per cent of the population.

It is somewhat surprising that the researchers, among the myriad questions they asked, did not enquire about the influence of media images and reporting of 7/7 on people’s views of the terrorist event. We are informed about the respondents’ age, gender, social class, working status, residential location, housing tenure, ethnicity, religion, income and parental status, but no mention is made of what media they follow and what kind of media images and claims they consumed post-7/7.

Those who have a link to individuals directly affected by the bombing will know that the constant reappearance of references to the attacks in the news, and particularly images of the blown-up bus (the other Underground incidents did not provide a similarly iconic image), often reminds them of what happened and leaves them feeling upset.

Feelings and perceptions are usually a poor guide for social research. For example, numerous surveys of both ordinary people and public figures in the US have consistently shown a high degree of expectation that there will be a terrorist attack in the coming months; such an attack has not come to pass. This shows that expectations can be wrong – and policy built on misplaced expectations can be disastrous.

As I have argued elsewhere, as more money has been spent on the ‘war on terror’, and as more measures are put in place to protect people from an allegedly big terrorist threat, the more people’s awareness about terrorism is raised and the more ‘stressed’ they seem to feel about it (4). Many in the British media and the authorities seem loathe to ‘let go’ of the 7/7 bombings, instead revisiting them as symbols of evil and as a justification for various legal measures. This institutionalisation of 7/7 and its effects no doubt has an impact on how people feel about the event. Could it be that society itself is prolonging the impact of terrorism on the population, by elevating terrorism to the main issue of the day and working from the presumption that it will have a long-lasting and damaging emotional impact on those who experience it?

At the same time, as the sociologist Frank Furedi has pointed out, people’s individual identities are increasingly fragile today. There is a widespread assumption that people are vulnerable and open to suffering from stress and other mental problems (5). It is notable, for instance, that those who took part in the 7/7 stress surveys were older and wealthier than non-respondents, and were less likely to have previously reported being stressed.

No doubt, some affected by 7/7 will have needed the support of psychiatrists to come to terms with their loss. But the growing presumption among professionals is that significant numbers of us have been affected somehow – a presumption which, sadly, this research will have done little to question. Ironically, those truly needing support may find it more difficult to receive it, given that we now have a situation where everyone involved in an incident is encouraged to seek counselling.

Professor Simon Wessely, a leading and insightful psychiatrist at King’s College London, tells people that whatever they do after an emergency, they should not give their name to the media. Otherwise they will never be able to ‘let go’ as the various anniversaries of the incident will bring a fresh round of calls to remember and reflect. Maybe we could add that nor should you give your name to ‘boffins’; certainly when research is carried out along these kinds of uncritical lines, the benefits are far from obvious.

First published on spiked, 3 April 2007

The government is for turning

As U-turn follows U-turn, New Labour is looking more and more like a party devoid of direction.

Another day, another U-turn. Less than a week into the New Year, a UK government minister has been told to ‘get back in your box and stay there’ by his own boss after criticising the airline industry. But this kind of thing is nothing new for a government that doesn’t know whether it is coming or going.

The minister, Ian Pearson, responsible for climate change, had very publicly rebuked a number of airlines for not taking seriously enough what he considers to be their responsibilities in relation to climate change. In an interview published in the Guardian, Pearson accused Michael O’Leary, chief executive of the budget airline Ryanair, of being ‘the irresponsible face of capitalism’, for describing a proposed EU carbon trading scheme as ‘just another tax’.

He also criticised American airlines for not wanting to have anything to do with the scheme and added that even British Airways were ‘only just playing ball’. But the following day Mr Pearson was severely reprimanded by his boss, David Miliband, for speaking out of turn. According to a senior adviser quoted in The Times (London) that day, ‘this is not how you make government policy’, and she indicated that in future Mr Miliband would lead the discussions on the carbon trading scheme.

It wasn’t the only U-turn that day. Elsewhere in The Times, it was reported that Tony Blair had questioned plans by his ministers to ban the use of ‘human-animal’ cloned embryos.

The proposed ban on fusing human DNA with animal eggs, which could provide experimental material for research into diseases like motor neurone disease and Alzheimer’s, had been criticised by leading scientists in The Times the previous day. The Department of Health had only just set out their proposals to introduce restrictions in a White Paper published in December, and officials had privately advised scientists that their applications to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to conduct such research were unlikely to be successful.

But, the scientists, including Professor Ian Wilmut – who led the team that created Dolly the cloned sheep – argued that Caroline Flint, the public health minister, and Patricia Hewitt, the health secretary, had been ill-advised. Their decision appeared to be based on a small number of unrepresentative responses from interested parties answering a call for public consultation. This went on to generate adverse newspaper headlines referring to ‘frankenbunnies’ and ‘moo-tants’. Now it appears as if Tony Blair is prepared to overrule his ministers by indicating that the law should be amended.

What both these instances reveal is not hard-nosed commercial pressures winning out over vacuous rhetoric about environmental awareness and scientific ethics, even if David Miliband and Tony Blair did baulk at the economic implications of what some of their more zealous ministers were proposing. After all, slapping down the airline industry and British science is quite a lot for one day.

Rather, the fact that such senior-level decisions were reversed within 24 hours is more significant. It reveals a government whose left hand doesn’t know, or does not agree with, what its right hand is doing – a government increasingly organised around endless streams of fleeting and reversible policies rather than a small number of firm and enduring principles.

New Labour was forged in the politics of pragmatism when Tony Blair announced his government would be the people’s servant upon being elected in 1997. But his claim sought to conceal the real and growing disconnection between the party and its traditional base. Far from being popular, politicians now needed to be populist. And policy based on unchallenged prejudice and emotion does not provide a stable base to build from.

More bereft of a coherent ideology than any political party before it, New Labour also came to be dependent on a growing army of privately appointed experts and cronies. Policy led by consultants and focus groups, and an obsession with new initiatives and measurable targets, hampered its ability to define an agenda. What one group of experts or consumers might come up with on a Monday was readily undone by what another group (or even the same group) thought on a Tuesday.

Nor are these inherently contradictory tendencies restricted to government circles either. For example, last week, Derbyshire Constabulary refused to release photographs of two escaped, convicted murderers on the grounds of having to protect their human rights. Greater Manchester police issued them instead, after the Lord Chancellor had intervened, on the grounds of protecting public safety.

Over the coming months we can expect many more policy U-turns and confusions such as these, as the plethora of incoherent policy initiatives produced over the last decade, and still emanating from various quarters, are increasingly doomed to clash. What we are witnessing is a government that has no strategy or guiding vision (hence Gordon Brown’s growing obsession with the need to find one), and policymakers and institutions that have no sense of purpose or direction around which to frame their ideas and decisions.

First published on spiked, 8 January 2007

Tempted by terror

To lose a few citizens to radical Islam is unfortunate. To lose as many as 1,600 (according to the MI5 boss) could be considered careless.

Let us assume, just for a minute, that Eliza Manningham-Buller’s headline-grabbing figures about the number of terrorists who threaten Britain are accurate. The head of Britain’s security service, MI5, claimed at the end of last week that there have been five intercepted terror plots since the attacks in London on 7 July 2005 and 30 more alleged conspiracies, and that there are 200 active groups or networks and at least 1,600 individuals under surveillance in the UK.

These figures seem to have been issued in good faith – and we all have an interest in the security services ensuring that anyone who is actually planning to harm the public is stopped in his or her tracks. But, to paraphrase and abuse the words of Oscar Wilde, we might also say that, ‘To lose a few citizens to becoming terrorists is unfortunate; but to lose this many must surely count as careless.’ The MI5 boss’s revelation of scary numbers was effectively a pitch for more resources, but she also unwittingly revealed that Britain should spend as much time addressing its broader cultural problems as it does its security threat. And we could start by asking why, according to MI5, so many Britons are turning to, or at least professing to support terrorism.

Take the case of Dhiren Barot for example. This convert to Islam was, according to those who put him away for 40 years last week for plotting various terrorist attacks in London and beyond, ‘the most significant al-Qaeda terrorist captured in Britain’. If that is true, then it would seem we don’t have as much reason to fear al-Qaeda as we thought. Despite keeping copious notes about radioactive substances and filling limousines with gas cylinders, Barot had yet to acquire any actual materials. He was more like a self-styled al-Qaeda agent, and a deluded fantasist to boot.

Barot and various others, including those radical imams who sometimes hit the headlines by screaming and shouting and threatening beheadings, are all shirt and no trousers. Their barks or actions are unlikely to bring civilisation to its knees. And yet as politicians and journalists obsess over such individuals, a much bigger point is being missed: the extent to which these individuals’ views about Western civilisation being corrupt and decadent have a broader popular resonance, and not only among the Muslim community.

For instance, rather than worrying about the radicalisation of a few individuals in schools and universities – as many have been doing recently, following claims that ‘al-Qaeda’ is recruiting among these influential constituencies – we would do far better to ask what exactly we want schools to teach in the first place. Is the curriculum so uninspiring that, to some kids, radical Islamists look like an attractive alternative? Surely it is the state’s inability to provide young, bright, energetic and ambitious individuals with any clear sense of purpose and direction that is the real problem here. And yet, how much easier it is to blame the odd guy with a beard for leading young people astray.

Many of the individuals caught up in contemporary terror plots have little if any connection to people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine, Chechnya, Bosnia, or anywhere much beyond Luton, Burnley and Leeds. Islam is their motif rather than their motive. It is a brand name for sticking two fingers up to what they perceive to be a degenerate Western culture. But then, the assumption that Western societies are decadent and corrupt is a common one, not limited to the ranks of radical Islam.

Some people were surprised over the summer to hear that one of those arrested in relation to an alleged plot to blow up planes leaving Heathrow was the son of a Conservative Party agent. And yet, if you read the words of various firebrand Islamists, they sometimes sound quite similar to those expressed by disgruntled Conservatives, especially in the right-leaning tabloid the Daily Mail: both sides seem concerned about wayward youth, chavs, drunkenness, lack of respect, moral decline and so on. Of course one side chooses (allegedly, in many instances) to react violently against this perceived rottenness of contemporary society, while the other side merely writes irate newspaper columns about it. But both seem to share a kind of cultural self-loathing.

It is this broader cultural problem that needs to be addressed. Eliza Manningham-Buller almost reached that conclusion herself towards the end of her talk last week, when she said there are aspects to this problem that cannot be solved through her service. If we fail to engage in the bigger social debate about what we are for (rather than just against), then we will continue to scare ourselves by highlighting the potential plans of a few freaks and ignoring the wider social forces that sometimes nurture these freaks’ ideas.

First published on spiked, 14 November 2006

Repeating the anti-terror soap opera

How did the police get a terror raid so wrong (again)?

On Friday 2 June at 4am, more than 250 police and other officials – including some from the UK’s health protection agency – took part in a raid on a house on Lansdown Road in east London, arresting two individuals, as part a continuing campaign against terrorism.

The morning TV news carried little else, and the 24-hour rolling news channels continued with a soap opera-like coverage throughout the day. Terrorism effectively competed with Big Brother as the nation’s most watched reality TV show.

Earnest journalists reported from various locations – Lansdown Road, New Scotland Yard, Paddington Green police station (where one of the men was detained), and the Royal London Hospital (where the other man – who had suffered a gunshot wound to the shoulder during the raid – had been taken).

Numerous interviews were conducted with supposed eyewitnesses who, in the main, had witnessed nothing, and an army of experts speculated wildly on various matters, including the clothing worn by some officers during the raid.

Claims soon emerged that some kind of chemical device was involved. Prime minister Tony Blair had reportedly been informed in advance of the operation and a five-mile air exclusion zone had been imposed around the property from midnight that day – although no residents were evacuated from the area.

Over the weekend, suggestions emerged that the individual shot had been injured by the other arrested individual, while views were aired on the supposed dangerous chemical. For a while it appeared that the UK could be paralysed, not by terrorism itself, but by an anti-terror raid.

On 2 June, Peter Clarke, the head of counter-terrorism operations for the Metropolitan Police, had announced in a statement that a long-standing surveillance operation had been accelerated, due to security sources obtaining specific intelligence.

Now, several days later, it looks as if no bomb-making equipment or chemicals have been found at the property. The Independent Police Complaints Authority is investigating another police shooting. The situation is still unclear, but it appears that the operation was based on flawed intelligence. How could this be?

One clue lies in the size of the operation and the breadth of the media coverage. These reveal the presumptions about contemporary terrorism that shape our societal responses. In the past, such anti-terrorist raids would have been conducted discreetly, but today the police court and receive full publicity.

Intelligence, in the security sense, is a product of both information and the interpretation of that information. Irrespective of what information has been received, it is its presumed meaning that determines the course of action.

Of course, often the information received is itself erroneous. There have been a number of high-profile instances since 9/11 – including the discovery of arms in a locker at a Paris airport – whereby individuals with a grudge against others have set them up and shopped them to the police.

What’s more, the fact that there is a police raid means little in an age when the definition of ‘acts preparatory to terrorism’ ranges from actual bomb making to looking at dodgy websites on the internet.

But fundamentally, it is the interpretation applied by the police and the security services to the information they receive that is the problem. If the authorities presume to be living in an age dominated by a global network of terrorist cells bent on wreaking havoc with chemical agents, this will shape their response.

The evidence for this framework so far seems to be lacking. There have never been weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq or the UK. Even the so-called ricin factory in north London turned out to be a misnomer: there never was any ricin.

Rather, what we have seen has been a small number of incidents, where a handful of independently operating individuals have taken it upon themselves to lash out against a society they dislike. They are neither connected by a common ideology, or particularly clear about their aims.

Over the past few years a precautionary approach has come to dominate police and other security operations. This holds, at its heart, the notion that officials have to act in advance of conclusive evidence, before it is too late.

It is this precautionary and fearful approach that today determines the presumptions and actions of the police, and other actors in society such as the media.

Recent anti-terror raids have all been over-the-top. When the second shoe-bomber, Sajid Badat, was arrested in Gloucester, police sent in 26 armed units and sealed off the city centre.

In the past, the dominant view was that we should not give terrorists the oxygen of publicity. Today, any nihilistic loner with a grudge is likely to receive blanket coverage for a week. We can be sure that there will be more such incidents to come.

First published on spiked, 7 June 2006

The ‘war on terror’ as displacement activity

The author of Imperial Hubris recognises the rot in Western society, but seems to think it can be resolved by taking out some Johnny Foreigners.

Imperial Hubris: Why The West Is Losing The War On Terror, Anonymous, Potomac Books, 2005.

Since the publication of the hardback edition of this book in 2004, Anonymous has been revealed to be Michael Scheuer, former head of the CIA’s Osama bin Laden unit in the late 1990s. So he has a lot of experience when it comes to terrorism and counterterrorism.

Scheuer is at his most compelling when lamenting the impossibility of exporting and imposing Western democracy and capitalism on those who, for whatever reason, reject such values. The consequence, in his words, is that the Karzai regime in Afghanistan is unsustainable – ‘a self-made illusion on life-support’. He notes the need to understand a problem’s history and context, and complains that ‘the way we see and interpret people and events outside North America is heavily clouded by arrogance and self-centredness amounting to what I called “imperial hubris” in Through Our Enemies’ Eyes’ (his previous book).

Scheuer’s overall thesis is fairly straightforward: the West does not face a terrorist problem but rather is confronted by a worldwide Islamic insurgency that requires political will and military means to be resolved. Above all, he says, the West is not hated for what it believes in, but rather for what it does – largely to the Arab world. So despite being a tough-minded Catholic conservative, Scheuer sounds remarkably like a whole spectrum of political opinion, from the radical left through to establishment-minded think-tanks (such as Chatham House in the UK), when he suggests the West has a self-serving interest in oil and should stop interfering in the Middle East.

How could this be? A clue lies in Scheuer’s book itself. You can’t help but notice that throughout the book he actually identifies a different enemy to the Islamist insurgency that he says must be destroyed. From the preface through to the final chapter, Scheuer bemoans the ‘moral cowardice’ of senior leaders, political elites, the media and even generals, as well as some in the intelligence community, who have become ‘risk averse’, ‘hold expertise and experience in low esteem, perhaps even contempt’, and who would rather have a quiet life than confront the pressing difficulties facing American society.

Nor, would it appear, do the problems confronting the US today simply consist of the ‘anti-Western sentiments of Muslims’. Scheuer also has other targets: political correctness, multiculturalism, creeping legalism and a culture of precaution in Washington and beyond. Indeed, his suggestion that, ‘In a society bereft of talented, manly, pious, and dignified leaders, the Mujahideen are both legitimate and romantic heroes’, could be taken as a description of certain Western societies as well as Muslim ones.

The work is littered with a liturgy of Western failings. ‘Style over credibility every time’, he moans, presumably emanating from some of ‘Washington’s desk-bound chest beaters’. By the end, he subscribes to Niall Ferguson’s therapeutically informed description of the US as a ‘colossus with an attention deficiency disorder’.

Some of these criticisms are pointed and well-made, but they surely point to a prior battle to be engaged in – at home – before his preferred option of a military engagement with insurgents abroad? It might also suggest that if so many Muslims hate the West – as he suggests they do – then maybe they got their ideas from far closer to home than most commentators care to imagine.

If Scheuer had spent a bit more time reading Clausewitz rather than Sun Tzu – the preferred strategist of the neo-cons – and the American Civil War generals he liberally cites throughout, he might have got to the bottom of his conundrum. For Clausewitz understood that the ‘friction’ of war necessitates winning a few battles at home prior to going overseas to teach ‘Johnny Foreigner’ a lesson or two.

In February 2003 the US State Department, in its National Strategy for Countering Terrorism, noted the need to engage in a ‘war of ideas’ – although what it meant by this remains unclear. Since then, the ideas element has been rather thin on the ground, beyond the bland attempts to superficially rebrand the US (attempts lambasted by Scheuer). Western leaders are conscious of the dilemma but have continuously skirted the issue when talking of the need to defend what they label as ‘our values’ or ‘our way of life’.

What values and way of life are they referring to? If it is the long list of morally corrupt and culturally degenerate mores and habits Scheuer decries, then that is hardly going to cut it in the eyes of Muslims or anybody else. It is only in contrast to these home-grown failings that bin Laden and Al Qaeda – in what is very much an image war – make themselves look impressive or important, even if they claim a list of other, more substantive, grievances, from US occupation of the Arabian peninsula to Western support for Muslim tyrants.

Scheuer effectively concedes that it is the West’s own decaying system of values and moral confusion that is the real problem when he says that bin Laden and his coreligionists benefit from ‘a shared mechanism for perceiving and reacting to world events’. It is the loss of any broader sense of purpose at home that drives Scheuer to exalt bin Laden when he notes that at least ‘he speaks in specifics and matches words with deeds’.

Scheuer identifies how Muslims ‘appear to genuinely love their God, faith and fellow Muslims in a passionate, intimate way that is foreign to me and, I suspect, to many in America and the West’, and argues that what Western commentators label ‘suicide’ (as in suicide bombings) is actually better understood as the sacrifice of those who still perceive ‘a cause that is greater than themselves’. All of this is a far cry from the culture of leaks and celebration of defeat he bemoans among Westerners in the closing stages of his book – a society where ‘the threat level wanders between “don’t worry” and “prepare to die”’.

The notion that ‘the enemy is at home’ might seem a step too far for some, but as Scheuer himself concludes: ‘The United States of America remains bin Laden’s only indispensable ally.’ So surely he and others would better spend their time coming up with an appropriate response rather than calling for more warfare ‘over there’.

First published on spiked, 9 March 2006

Al-Qaeda: a conspiracy of dunces?

The real story of the ‘ricin plot’ is that Britain’s would-be terrorists are a bunch of losers.

Kamel Bourgass, a 31-year old Algerian, has been found guilty of ‘conspiracy to commit a public nuisance by using poisons and explosives’. We now also know that in June 2004 he had already been found guilty of the murder of detective constable Stephen Oake during a bungled police raid on a house in Manchester. The media clamour surrounding this case, however, missed the real story to emerge from the trial.

As well as the murder of Stephen Oake, Bourgass and four others were charged with ‘conspiracy to murder’ using the obscure poison ricin, held to have been manufactured at a flat in north London, but they were not convicted of that charge. A further trial involving four further alleged conspirators was to have followed soon after.

The now infamous ‘ricin factory’ was raided on 5 January 2003, two months prior to the onset of war in Iraq. The blanket media coverage of this raid coupled with the assurance of various politicians that this displayed the willingness of ‘international terrorists’ to develop and deploy so-called weapons of mass destruction, undoubtedly helped soften public opinion to the ensuing conflict.

But the trial has finally forced the authorities to admit that there never was any trace of ricin found in the first place. That is the one, truly newsworthy story to emerge from this saga. Yet following the contemporary fashion for not letting the evidence stand in the way of a good story, this welcome news has been ignored in favour of collective speculation as to what Bourgass ‘might’ have been up to.

Irrespective of the fact that ricin is considered to be a fairly unreliable covert assassination weapon, still less a weapon of mass destruction, most reporting of the case has focused on the various ‘recipes, ingredients and equipment’ which could have enabled Bourgass to manufacture ricin, cyanide and other poisons.

Presumably, the fact that such information is readily available online will allow the police to arrest pretty much whomever they please in the future. At the trial, prosecuting QC Nigel Sweeney listed the equipment that had been found as including ‘scales, thermometers, rubber gloves, a coffee grinder, batteries and bulbs’. It would appear that anyone with a moderately well-equipped kitchen might be in trouble then, as well as those who diligently follow government advice on preparing for possible terrorist attacks.

Of course, none of this is to say that Bourgass is a complete innocent; his repeated stabbing of an unarmed police officer suggests otherwise. But there are already laws for dealing with murder and, having admitted his guilt, he had been duly tried and sentenced accordingly. It is also perfectly possible that Bourgass did want to make some kind of poison, although the quantities of ingredients found – the castor oil beans that have to be ground down to make ricin – were insufficient.

But then the real story ought to be about the sheer naivety and incompetence of all the so-called al-Qaeda operatives sentenced to date. In the UK there have been only three: Richard Reid, the dim-witted shoe bomber who had trouble with matches; Sajid Badat, the Gloucester loner who bottled out of emulating Reid; and now Bourgass, a man who purportedly hoped to cause mayhem by painting car handles with a poison that has to be injected to be effective.

If that is the best of what the supposed massed ranks of al-Qaeda have to offer after three years, then, irrespective of the forthcoming trial of a similar loser who bought more fertiliser than he could handle, we should have little to fear. But the media, politicians and the police have sought to portray the situation differently.

Peter Clarke, the recently appointed Metropolitan Police deputy assistant commissioner charged with countering terrorism, spoke of the ‘fear and disruption this plot could have caused across the country’, blissfully ignoring the fact that the only reason any of us ever heard of ricin was because the authorities pushed it into the public domain, despite there not having been any.

Notably, all of the supposed co-conspirators in this case have been cleared of the charges, so there was no evidence of an organised al-Qaeda ‘cell’ either. The jurors should be commended for reaching this verdict in the context of the constant bombardment about sinister individuals and organisations to which we have all been subjected since 9/11.

But most insidiously of all, much of the coverage of these events is dominated by evidence gathered from a supposed fellow-plotter, Mohamed Meguerba. The story about the car handles, the allegations of al-Qaeda connections and specialist training, even the existence of a supposed Nivea cream pot that contained ricin but that has never subsequently been discovered – all of these claims and others were ruled as inadmissible evidence by the judge, having been derived from interrogations by the Algerian security services.

Yet regardless of this, the BBC and others choose to repeat those statements, presumably because without them there would be no story left. In effect this legitimises the replacement of evidence with fantasy and hearsay, which can only serve to bring contemporary British justice and media reporting still further into disrepute.

There was, it seems, no al-Qaeda cell, no plot, and no ricin – but there was still a bloody good story anyway, from those who have truly terrorised the public.

First published on spiked, 14 April 2005

A question of fear, not chemistry

‘Many of the concerns about chemicals can best be described as conclusions in search of data.’

On 24 September 2004, the Council of the European Union permanently banned a family of organic chemicals, known as phthalates, from use in toys and childcare items. This ‘political agreement’ finally brought to an end five years of debate about the toxicity of these compounds. During that time, the European Commission maintained a rolling series of temporary emergency bans, despite the scientific research evidence that consistently and increasingly opposed this official view.

Banning phthalates, a family of organic compounds used to soften PVC, appears unexceptional in its own terms. After concerns had been raised as to their possible toxicological impact upon infants, it perhaps seems reasonable to pursue a course of caution and further research. Phthalates’ removal from the marketplace is unlikely to generate much immediate economic pain, even for those companies that produced them.

But concerns about phthalates reflected a growing cautionary climate and helped pave the way for a new European chemicals regulation strategy – REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals). Now, thousands of chemicals that have been in regular use for over 20 years have to face a battery of toxicological tests, despite our having billions of hours of exposure data as to the consequences of their use.

Again, it may seem sensible to make such testing mandatory. It could surprise some people to find out that chemicals in use prior to 1981 are unlikely to have been subjected to toxicity and carcinogenicity tests. But the tests are unlikely to resolve matters.

The tests have been described as both unfeasible and unnecessary by the UK Medical Research Council Institute for Environment and Health. This is because – as with phthalates before them – the tests are to be performed on a precautionary basis. There is no evidence of any harm. Rather, it is our contemporary culture that demands constant reassurance at any cost that may be the most harmful. REACH will require vast resources, not least in terms of animal testing, but it will be unable to address all possible concerns, and it will drive consumer fears rather than assuaging them for a period in excess of 50 years.

It is important to understand these developments as shaped more by political context than scientific evidence. In the early 1990s, the European Commission and its scientific services went through major physical and cultural reorganisations in the aftermath of the BSE (‘mad cow disease’) debacle. A new cautionary outlook was adopted which effectively advocated pre-emptive strikes in situations of uncertainty. This ‘precautionary principle’ required the use of worst-case scenarios in scientific decision-making.

These developments both reflected and amplified broader trends in society. A proclivity to speculate about what might be, now dominates over examination of what actually is. Caution requires extrapolating from uncorroborated or anecdotal evidence – just in case. This has allowed rumour and myth to abound and increasingly to shape our lives. Hence the growing calls to regulate, not just chemicals, but all manner of other products and activities, both new and old, from conkers to vaccines.

But the real driver behind our growing insecurities has more to do with the political disconnection that now dominates contemporary life. As ordinary people no longer form part of active networks as they did in the past, so their tolerance and trust in all forms of authority, whether political, corporate or scientific, has waned. Subjective impressions of reality go unmoderated and grow into all-consuming worldviews not open to reasoned interrogation.

This process has been facilitated by the political, corporate and scientific elites who, lacking any vision or direction of their own, have willingly repackaged themselves as societal risk-managers. Sensing their growing isolation from those they depend upon for authority, leaders now offer to protect us from our fears. An alienated and fearful public is the flipside of an isolated and purposeless elite.

Accordingly, the specifics of any particular issue are only a small part of what shapes the debate. Campaigners’ complaints about minute traces of persistent chemicals found inside their bodies are driven more by their sense of alienation from the decision-making process than by any real grasp of chemistry. They extrapolate from experiments upon rodents, which not only have different metabolisms, but which are also subjected to huge doses of chemicals for protracted periods of time, precisely to see the worst that might happen.

Many of the concerns, such as those regarding so-called ‘endocrine disrupting chemicals’, can best be described as conclusions in search of data. Despite the Royal Society report that notes that such chemicals are just as likely to be beneficial, and despite the evidence that there are millions of times as many of such substances in our foods as in any chemical we are likely to be exposed to, the decision to assume the worst now drives policy.

It is the authorities themselves that are in the vanguard of driving the agenda. Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) may act as catalysts, but it is the European Commission, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution and even many chemical producing companies themselves who, desperate not to lose face in relation to what they assume to be public opinion, are prepared to push through the new cautionary policies.

Far from stabilising matters and reassuring the public such actions will drive public concerns and also shape a far more unstable regulatory environment. Rather than challenging the public with the evidence, the new elite, lacking any purpose of its own, is happy to appear to provide protection by pandering to social fears.

Our obsession with preventing the unthinkable lends itself to distracting us from more likely sources of risk, thereby diverting social resources from more plausible sources of threat at the same time as alarming people needlessly. But the drive to be seen to be taking precautions now determines all. It has allowed groups to pose as champions of consumer welfare, of animals, the environment or future generations, despite their being unelected and unable to represent the dumb, the inanimate or the unborn.

By raising problems at a time when these are in decline, and by positing widespread tests that are neither desirable nor achievable, the authorities make matters worse rather than better. And by adopting politically expedient, yet ultimately intellectually cowardly policies, they display their ultimate contempt for those that they claim to be fighting for.

First published on spiked, 16 November 2004

Hunters in the House

There’s little point securing institutions from the outside, if they have failed to win the loyalty of those on the inside.

The invasion of the chamber of the House of Commons by a handful of pro-hunt campaigners last week led to the usual debate about security at public buildings.

Much of the discussion focused on the anachronism of allowing ‘men in tights’, rather than the Metropolitan Police, to dictate security arrangements at parliament. The fact that in recent years the police have failed to stop Greenpeace activists from scaling Big Ben and a self-styled comedy terrorist from getting into Prince William’s birthday party at Windsor Castle seems to have been forgotten.

But there is something more interesting going on here than a typical security blunder. Whether or not the protesters who got in through the relatively obscure Speaker’s entrance were, as suspected, directly aided by somebody inside – an MP, a researcher or a contractor – they clearly benefited from insider knowledge about the layout of parliament.

There is little point securing institutions from the outside, with CCTV, concrete blocks or armed guards, if those institutions have failed to win the loyalty of those on the inside. Many of the individuals employed in the House in the past will have disagreed with decisions taken in the chamber; but they would also have had a sense that their own private political persuasions were not sufficient to trump the significance of a public institution.

Of course some would have had to sign a piece of paper declaring that they were not politically motivated (although for obvious reasons the same could not apply to MPs and their researchers). But there would have been a clear divide between private morality and public action, which no longer seems to apply today.

This became evident earlier this year when former Privy Council member Clare Short – who threatened to resign, then stayed, and was finally dismissed for her views on the legality of invading Iraq – chose to go public and break the Official Secrets Act in relation to the UK’s role in spying on UN officials. This suggested that, for some in public office, personal moral conscience can take precedence over issues of public security.

Short, like pro-hunt activists, could have made her views known in public and tried to win support for them. That is the political process. Her willingness to bypass such a process reflected her own intellectual incompetence, and her contempt for the public. She was not alone. Throughout 2002 and early 2003, many ‘secrets’ relating to the forthcoming invasion of Iraq were leaked from within the Pentagon. It was well known that senior military staff were not happy with the proposals coming from within the White House. But again, rather than trying to win the argument behind closed doors, they went to the media.

The images from inside Abu Ghraib prison were also leaked by elements within the US military, rather than having emerged as the result of investigative journalism or Iraqis protesting about their treatment by coalition forces. Across the developed world, key social institutions seem unable to hold the line on what they are for. They fail to win the hearts and minds even of those they employ. It is this internal uncertainty that can give rise to breaches of security.

Real security derives from the quiet confidence of knowing who you are, what you stand for and where you are heading. And that is a political question, about how to cohere a consensus around social aims and values.

A journalist remarked to me during a recent radio interview that it was hardly difficult to infiltrate the House of Commons considering how many of its functions have now been outsourced. Catering, building, even security and IT are regularly performed by contractors. It’s a wonder, he said, that they haven’t outsourced the MPs themselves.

Funny as it was, this example also reveals something fundamental about what is happening today. Nobody wants to take responsibility for anything – because they don’t really believe in it. And this process starts at the very highest level of society. For example, there are more mercenaries and private security contractors in Iraq than there are British troops.

If the establishment wants some real security then the least it could do is take responsibility for its actions, and try to win the support of those individuals it employs.

First published on spiked, 24 September 2004