Houses of Precaution
Whitehall and the Metropolitan Police have tightened security at the Houses of Parliament, by installing concrete blocks to ‘protect the building from a possible terrorist attack’. But according to officials, this latest measure ‘is not in response to a specific threat’ (1).
This highlights some of the tensions for the authorities in trying to keep the public alert but not alarmed. The powers-that-be consistently flag up the nation’s ‘vulnerabilities’ and the need for public vigilance, yet, as prime minister Tony Blair reminded us in a speech in November 2002, actions ‘on the basis of a general warning’ could lead us to ‘doing [the terrorists’] job for them’.
Irrespective of the prime minister’s, or anybody else’s, occasionally measured assessments of the terror threat, there are always individuals and institutions who consider it their responsibility to err on the side of caution. A spokesman for the Met Police says the concrete bollards around parliament have been installed ‘on a precautionary basis, in light of events around the world and the fact that security in the capital remains at a high level’ (2).
This precautionary approach is not something that can be shaped by policy or diktat. Rather, it reflects a wider public mood that has become increasingly pessimistic and risk-averse over the past decade. Reversing this cultural tide will take more than ‘specific intelligence’ or good intentions.
Many of the technically oriented solutions to the alleged terror threat, like the concrete blocks or greater surveillance, could make things worse in the long term. Because while resilience is, to a certain extent, a function of technology, it is above all a function of attitude. Our already fractured and disaggregated society appears to be suffering from a lack of common purpose and social vision. Technical restraints imposed for security reasons will surely only heighten people’s sense that we live in an out-of-control world.
It is hard to see how the rising cordon of security - at Westminster, Heathrow or wherever - will ever be reversed. Under what circumstances would a government risk stepping down its coloured warning system from amber to green? To do so would be to risk opprobrium in the event of an actual terrorist attack.
Accordingly, amber is the new green and the whole enterprise gets cranked up a gear - except that people’s state of alertness will gradually wane and the real battle that needs to be won, the campaign against mistrust and cynicism at home, remains to be engaged.
First published by spiked, 23 May 2003