12 July, 2005: Obligatory terrorism post

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A little while ago I woke up to the sound of the 0810 interview on Today and found myself staring in wonderment at the radio. Which of our politicians, I wondered, has been kidnapped and replaced with this relatively sensible-sounding impostor? To my surprise and astonishment, it turned out to be David Davis, speaking about civil liberties. Well, he's been at it again, saying -- along with the usual bromides after such events, of which I think the best expressed were Ken's -- that acts of terrorism such as last Thursdays's bombings in London could not be prevented in an open society. He was half right; it turns out that closed societies can't prevent terrorism either.

(Yes, everyone is writing mostly-serious pieces about THE TERRORISTS. Who am I to buck a trend? You can probably skip the rest.)

Notwithstanding that, someone -- I think on the Thursday afternoon press conference of emergency service spokesmen, but after a few hours the news coverage had all blended into one -- suggested that airline-style security checks might be brought in on the London Underground. Charles Clarke has alluded to the same possibility in an interview. This is a fantasy, and not an endearing one. A large airport -- Heathrow, for instance -- handles about 150,000 passengers per day. The London Underground handles twenty times as many, entering and leaving the system at 274 stations. It would probably be possible, in principle and at vast expense, to frisk everyone who goes into the Tube every day and search their bags, but only at the cost of lengthy delays and huge queues (imagine those queues at Heathrow).

And for what? Airport-style security doesn't actually work very well -- when did you last hear of a bomb being found in someone's luggage before it had exploded? -- and the queues of people waiting to be searched would be just as good a target for bombers as the trains themselves, as residents of Israel (and Baghdad) have found out to their cost (imagine a suicide bomber in a queue at Heathrow). In general the low incidence of terrorism in most countries is evidence for there being small numbers of terrorists in those countries, not evidence that those countries' security measures are very effective.

Nevertheless, for every social problem there is proposed an equal and irrelevant technical solution; here it was suggested in the Times on Friday -- and later denied on the BBC (same link as for Charles Clarke interview) -- that ``QinietiQ'' (what used to be the Defence Evaluation Research Agency) were going to supply millimeter-wave cameras to London Underground to scan for suicide bombers. The game there is that the things can see through clothing and so you can use them to look for people who have strapped explosives (or anything else) to their person. (There's also the obvious privacy problem that they can be used to look for hot chicks -- or, at least, find out what they look like without any clothes on -- but I am sure that we will all agree that the personnel operating them would be adequately screened to prevent such an abuse. And if not, finding out what the less-than-hot chicks look like naked might eventually deter the peeoping toms.) Unfortunately, the scanners are very expensive so would hypothetically only be installed at a few stations; as the Times report states,

Dummy devices could be installed at some stations to reduce the overall cost.

As with speed cameras, people passing would not know which ones were live.

... and, as with speed cameras, offenders would probably ignore them. The smart terrorist would get on at a station without cameras, or put their bomb inside a metal suitcase (opaque to millimetre waves) of the type that yuppies like to take on holiday. Still, you can't fault QinetiQ's PR department, which was clearly in top gear; elsewhere the same article describes an idea outstanding for its daring conception and likely effectiveness:

QinetiQ has also combined the devices [millimeter-wave cameras] with software which detects anomalous behaviour, such as people changing direction inside mainline or Underground stations. Covert studies of terrorists have detected typical patterns of movement as they carry out reconnaissance or seek the best position for their attack.

The one tiny drawback I can see to this scheme -- other than the fact that the software almost certainly doesn't work -- is that the behaviour described also sounds pretty typical of people who aren't completely sure where they're going. After Underground staff have fruitlessly hassled the first few thousand tourists confused by poor signage their guard may drop a little.

Sad to say, the real world is not a simple place and there are no easy technical measures which can protect us from terrorism (or, indeed, most other kinds of crime). That's not an argument to do nothing where such measures would be effective: for instance, locking and strengthening the cockpit doors of airliners was a definite no-brainer manouevre (though as has been pointed out THE TERRORISTS could always buy their own 'planes, which would also enable a profitable sideline in budget airlines). But we should accept that if people want to bring bombs on the Underground they will be able to. And even if they could be prevented from doing so, there are plenty of other (in the disturbing jargon) `soft targets' which could be attacked: buses, pubs, surface trains, airports, and so forth. As a specific example, the Madrid bombers also attempted to bomb a high-speeed railway line; happily they didn't finish planting their bomb, though the news reports suggest this may have been a lucky break for the authorities. Britain has (according to the CIA, so take with a pinch of salt) about 10,000 miles of railway lines; it is hard to see that this could be regularly searched for bombs in any effective (let alone affordable) way.

In any case -- and apologies for channeling Stanley Baldwin -- the experience of Israel suggests that however much intrusive security people are prepared to put up with (and pay for), the terrorist can always get through.

But there's a more general point here too. One outcome of Thursday's attacks is likely to be yet more emergency legislation and new anti-terrorism measures from our panicked leaders. The Telegraph reported mutterings about new legislation of the routine authoritarian New Labour sort, while last Friday, in a disgusting editorial, the Sun advocated the establishment of a system of concentration camps for Muslims:

Mayor Ken Livingstone captured London's resolve when he warned terrorists they will never destroy our free society, whatever they do.


Britain is crawling with suspected terrorists and those who give them succour. The Government must act without delay, round up this enemy in our midst and lock them in internment camps.

Our safety must not play second fiddle to their supposed ``rights''.

Let's hope that here in the real Britain the rule of law is a little more robust than in the Sun's caricature of our country. (No doubt a brief search would yield even more offensive stuff on the lunatic fringe of web-logs, but I haven't the heart to look.)

That aside, calls for further security measures, new legislation and whatnot are a perfectly natural reaction to the bombings; like many natural reactions, they are irrational and should not be heeded. Firstly, there is no evidence that existing measures have been effective in any way; the security services and politicians like to crow about how many attacks have been prevented, but there's no evidence that any of this should be taken seriously, and plenty that it's at least heavily exaggerated (as in the supposed `ricin plot'). To react to evidence that harsh and ill-drafted laws have not achieved their effect by proposing even harsher laws is stupid.

Secondly, the fact that a terrorist attack has occured does not necessarily give us any information about whether further attacks should be expected, what form they might take, or when they might occur. We have repeatedly been told -- by police officers, politicians and other commentators -- that a terrorist attack by Islamist terrorists in the UK was `inevitable'; from here, these people ought to argue, the probability of a further attack can only fall. More seriously, without knowing more about the terrorists, it's hard to see how any new legislation could usefully be proposed. I do not anticipate that this will stop the Home Office, of course.

By contrast as Anthony points out, opinion polls taken since the bombings suggest that people have a... relatively... reasonable idea of how we should react to the bombings:

... in line with YouGov's poll on Saturday, only 49% would support the introduction of ID cards (while the precise figures werent in the paper, apparantly under 20% of respondents thought they would have prevented Thursdays attack). Patrols on buses met with relatively little support (41%), even less so (21%) when it was suggested fares rose by 10% to pay for more security.

In a less scientific statement of public opinion, numerous commentators have -- inevitably -- invoked the `spirit of the Blitz' (better, at least, than invoking the spirit of Dunkirk...) and remarked on how Britain put up with decades of IRA terrorism without us ever abandoning our traditional values -- the values, perhaps, which have in the past lead us to framing random people of the appropriate ethnicity to appease demands for justice, and writing ill-tempered newspaper editorials advocating god-knows-what. I'd love to believe that we'll react stoically and calmly to terrorism, but we shouldn't be too sanguine about this. All the evidence suggests that al-Qaeda terrorism will be more vicious than IRA attacks (at least those on the British mainland) were; in particular, there are unlikely to be any telephoned warnings of future attacks. There is already some evidence of attacks on mosques, presumably from the usual neanderthal element.

Equally, people did put up with German bombing during the Second World War and the constant threat of nuclear incineration during the Cold War, so there is some hope. But in those cases there were few convenient local scapegoats on whom people could take revenge. It wouldn't be very comforting for life to go on much as normal, but with a steady background of lynchings and arson attacks on mosques.

Bluntly, I don't know how the British population would react to a sustained and effective campaign of terrorism, and neither do you. Let's hope we don't get to find out -- the chances are that we won't, because the number of people in the UK right now who are actually prepared to participate in or support a terrorist campaign is almost certainly miniscule. One smart move would be to keep it that way.

Copyright (c) 2005 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.